You couldn’t write a much better script for the Final Four of the NCAA women’s tournament. There’s defending champion Stanford. There’s 11-time champion Connecticut hoping to end a six-year drought between titles. There’s South Carolina, which has been ranked No. 1 all season. And there’s No. 1 seed Louisville making its fourth appearance in search of its first national championship.
There’s plenty of star power on the court with South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Stanford’s Haley Jones, Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers and Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith. And the coaches – Dawn Staley, Tara VanDerveer, Geno Auriemma and Jeff Walz – are royalty of the sport.
It sets up for a dramatic finish to the season in Minneapolis. Our experts make their picks for Friday’s national semifinals and who will win it all on Sunday.
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louisville vs. South Carolina
Aliyah Boston is the player of the year with good reason, but it’s South Carolina’s defense that makes this an insurmountable task for Louisville. It had the country’s third-best defense this season, and has turned it up another notch in March, allowing just 41.2 points through its first four games of the tournament. South Carolina 65, Louisville 48.
Sure, the Gamecocks haven’t had consistent shooting this tournament, but their suffocating defense shuts down Hailey Van Lith and Louisville struggles to find any rhythm offensive. Aliyah Boston and company dominate the boards. South Carolina 74, Louisville 61.
What offensive woes? South Carolina guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke will shoot the Gamecocks into the title game for the first time since 2017, when South Carolina won it all. South Carolina 73, Louisville 58.
Connecticut vs. Stanford
Paige Bueckers won’t let the Huskies lose. In their double-overtime win over NC State in the Elite Eight, it was Bueckers who carried UConn. She has another level that few do and when she turns that on, she’s impossible to stop. Connecticut 72, Stanford 68.
Paige Bueckers proved in the Elite Eight she is the superstar she has been thought to be, but Stanford has too much fire power. The Cardinal offense breaks through UConn’s defense just enough behind Lexie Hull and Haley Jones, while Bueckers does n’t replicate her performance against NC State. Stanford 68, Connecticut 63.
Stanford’s length will be the difference-maker defensively, as the Cardinal frustrates hometown hero Paige Bueckers into a rough shooting night. Look for a big game from Lexie Hull on both sides of the ball. Stanford 81, Connecticut 76.
Again, defense wins championships and no one’s is better than South Carolina’s. The Gamecocks also want to see their No. 1 ranking through to the end, fulfilling the potential everyone has predicted for them all season. Perhaps if they hadn’t lost to Kentucky in the SEC final, they’d be poised for a stumble. But that loss only hardened their resolve to cut down the nets. South Carolina 69, Connecticut 56.
The X-factor for this game will be Stanford’s Cameron Brink. She had one of her worst offensive games in the loss to the Gamecocks earlier this season, and her foul trouble in the tournament has kept her on the bench probably more than Tara VanDerveer would like. But lighting never strikes twice. The sophomore steps up alongside Hull and Jones to give the Cardinal their first repeat national championship. Stanford 64, South Carolina 60.
No one beats Tara VanDerveer twice in one season. The Cardinal led by 18 at one point during its first game with South Carolina before a massive meltdown late in the second half. Stanford hasn’t forgotten that and while Aliyah Boston is the best overall player in the country, slowing down both Cameron Brink and Haley Jones will be too tall of a task for the Gamecocks. Stanford 68, South Carolina 59.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA Tournament women’s Final Four predictions: Who wins title?