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Final Four 2022 preview: Keys to victory for each team

Emily Engstler has turned it on for Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

And then there were four.

South Carolina, Louisville, Stanford and UConn are each just two wins away from becoming national champions. Getting here wasn’t easy, and finishing the job will be even more challenging.

Each team has had its own highs and lows this season. As we prepare for the three biggest games of the year, let’s reflect on those moments and explore what each squad has to do to come out on top in the Final Four.

South Carolina

Biggest (pre-NCAA Tournament) win: 65-61 over No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 21

South Carolina played a tough schedule this season featuring 11 ranked opponents, but this win cemented the Gamecocks as an NCAA Tournament favorite. South Carolina had already topped No. 2 UConn, so to follow it up a month later with a win over the defending champion proved the hype around the team was real.

What’s more, the Gamecocks did it without playing particularly well, and managing to win when everything is going wrong is the mark of a great team. The Gamecocks shot just 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from the 3-point line. While one of South Carolina’s big three, Zia Cooke, finished with just four points, Aliyah Boston had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Henderson finished with 17 points. Meanwhile, Victaria Saxton added seven points and 10 boards, making the type of quiet impact she carried into the rest of the season.

Biggest challenge: Staying consistent

The Gamecocks managed to stay ranked first in the AP Poll for the entire season. Despite two losses, the first to Missouri in the regular season and the second to Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship, the voters felt comfortable keeping South Carolina atop the poll because of the team’s overall body of work. It doesn’t hurt that the Gamecocks beat just about every team that could have competed for the No. 1 spot.

Their ranked wins came against No. 5 NC State, No. 9 Oregon, No. 2 UConn, No. 8 Maryland, No. 15 Duke, No. 2 Stanford, No. 13 LSU, No. 21 Kentucky, No. 24 Ole Miss, No. 17 Georgia and No. 12 Tennessee. And when it came to those two upsets, the Gamecocks regrouped and responded with double-digit wins each time.

Key to victory: Show up on both ends of the floor

The only weakness South Carolina has shown this season has been the occasional game in which the offense doesn’t perform. In their early-season win over Stanford, the Gamecocks showed their ability to persevere in difficult circumstances, but it’s also the kind of thing that’s much easier to get away with in the regular season than in the postseason. The Gamecocks struggled offensively against Miami in the second round, as well. It was nothing to worry about then, as the Gamecocks were able to overwhelm the Hurricanes with their defense and overall talent. But against the remaining three teams, including Final Four opponent Louisville, the talent level is too high to get away with playing on just one end of the floor.

Louisville

Biggest (pre-NCAA Tournament) win: Over No. 18 Notre Dame 73-47 on Feb. 13

This win is even more impressive considering the NCAA Tournament run the Fighting Irish put together. As a standalone contest, it was also the most complete game Louisville put together this season.

On defense, the Cardinals held Notre Dame to 32 percent shooting from the field and 9 percent from the 3-point line, while also forcing 16 turnovers. They also had nine players score on offense. Kianna Smith led the team with 17 points, Hailey Van Lith had 16 and Chelsie Hall added 13. Emily Engstler also had a near double-double with 12 rebounds, nine points and five assists. Louisville had been consistently good all season long, but this game showed they had national title-winning potential.

Biggest challenge: Inexperience

At the start of the season, Van Lith and Olivia Cochran had to adjust to larger roles as sophomores, and Engstler had to adjust to Louisville after transferring from Syracuse. Their inexperience showed down the stretch of their season-opening loss to Arizona. That game seemed far, far away as the Cardinals entered the postseason as one of the most consistent teams in the country. That trend continued in the tournament and earned them a spot in the Final Four.

Key to victory: Defense

When Louisville is at its best, the team is flying around, forcing turnovers and creating havoc. It’s what the Cardinals did to Michigan in the Elite Eight, forcing 22 turnovers, which became 24 points on the other end. They also feed off defensive energy, so when Engstler gets a deflection or Van Lith dives for a loose ball, the entire team suddenly taps into another gear. It’s infectious and dangerous for opponents. If the Cardinals can take advantage of South Carolina’s miscues, often enough to keep the Gamecocks out of sync, they have as good a chance as anyone to advance to – and even win – the national championship.

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Lexie Hull has been an offensive weapon for Stanford in the NCAA Tournament. (Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Stanford

Biggest (pre-NCAA Tournament) win: Over No. 7 Tennessee on Dec. 18

When the Cardinal went on the road and topped the Vols, Tennessee was one of the hottest teams in the country. The Vols were 9-0 going into the game, and won nine more after the defeat. The Cardinal had been inconsistent leading up to the game, suffering upset losses to Texas and South Florida.

Stanford led by 17 points at the half before Tennessee cut the advantage to three points. The Cardinal were able to regain control, something that hadn’t happened in their previous two losses. They also started to look more like the defending national championship team we expected heading into the season.

Biggest challenge: Replacing Kiana Williams

Most basketball experts didn’t see this coming, but the departure of Kiana Williams proved to be a major obstacle for Stanford early in the season. The Cardinal struggled to take care of the ball — they recorded multiple 20-turnover games in the first few weeks — before finally finding a guard combination that worked. Lacie Hull has become a steadying force with the ball in her hands, splitting time with Anna Wilson at point. Together, the two run Stanford’s offense efficiently and effectively. The Cardinal are on a 24-game win streak, with their last loss coming on Dec. 21 against South Carolina.

Key to victory: Cameron Brink stays on the floor

Brink is one of the most impactful players in college basketball. She brings energy, a terrifying presence for opponents in the paint and high-level offensive skills. When the Cardinal played Texas for a spot in the Final Four, her importance to Stanford was obvious. With her on the bench for much of the first half, Texas was able to stay with Stanford, trailing by just three points at halftime. And in the third quarter, the Longhorns could have gained the lead and pulled away if it hadn’t been for Brink, who scored 10 of the Cardinal’s 13 points in the quarter. The only non-Brink points came with one second left when Haley Jones was fouled on a 3-pointer. The Cardinal went into the fourth quarter up by five, but without the sophomore, they would have trailed by seven.

Against UConn in the Final Four, and then potentially South Carolina or Louisville in the championship game, Stanford can’t afford to have Brink on the bench. She will need to stay out of foul trouble to give her team its best shot at the repeat.

UConn

Biggest (pre-NCAA Tournament) win: 70-40 over Villanova on March 7

It’s crazy to think that this season has been considered a challenge for UConn. A five-loss campaign is a great season for most teams, but UConn is held to a higher standard — for obvious reasons. That’s why, in part, the Feb. 9 loss to Villanova at home was such a big deal. The Huskies hadn’t lost a conference game since 2013. In a season where UConn hadn’t looked like the team we are used to, the loss had people asking: “Should we be worried about the Huskies?” And when the Huskies picked up a 70-40 revenge win over Villanova for the Big East tournament title a month later, they proved that no matter what had happened throughout the year, they were still a contender.

Biggest challenge: Injuries

It seems like every player on UConn’s roster has been injured at one point this season, causing disjointed play throughout the year. UConn even looked out of sync in its second-round win over UCF. The Huskies looked like a team that hadn’t spent much time on the court together because, well, they hadn’t.

The biggest hurdle for UConn to overcome was the knee injury Paige Bueckers sustained against Notre Dame on Dec. 5. She missed 19 games before returning for postseason play, and it took a long time for the Huskies to adjust. After scoring 27 points in her team’s overtime win over NC State in the Elite Eight, the sophomore star also looks like her old self once again and the team is peaking at the right time.

Key to victory: Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa

It’s easy for players like Bueckers and Azzi Fudd to steal the spotlight, but Edwards and Nelson-Ododa need to continue to perform at a high level if the Huskies want to add another national title to their long list. When they control the paint, it’s challenging for opponents to establish anything inside, both offensively and defensively. Against NC State they combined for 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, all while policing the paint and challenging the NC State guards who attempted to drive.

The Huskies take on Stanford in the semifinals, and to slow down Brink and the Cardinal attack as a whole, Edwards and Nelson-Ododa will have to be locked in.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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