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NCAA Final Four preview and predictions

UConn players.

What do all of the Final Four teams have in common? The answer is simple: these are four of the best defensive teams in the entire country. Between all 343 Division I schools, UConn ranks 1st in Her Hoops Stats Defensive Rating. South Carolina ranks 3rd. Stanford ranks 4th. And Arizona ranks 6th. 

Their strengths vary. Arizona steals a lot of passes. South Carolina blocks a lot of shots. But it doesn’t really matter how they do it. The result is the same – they all thrive on defense. In a Final Four packed with stars like Paige Bueckers, Aari McDonald, Aliyah Boston, Kiana Williams, and Zia Cooke, defense will decide these Final Four games. 

No. 1 Stanford vs No. 1 South Carolina (6:00pm ET on ESPN)

Stanford started off the season steaming hot. They won 11 straight games. They blew out future NCAA tournament (and Final Four) squads. They locked teams up, holding every single opponent to less than 64 points. 

They looked like the best team in the country.

Then came the back-to-back losses.

They fell in an overtime loss to a 6-6 Colorado team, before losing to UCLA five days later. In both of these games, the Cardinal were destroyed on the boards, giving up 11 offensive rebounds to Colorado and 21 to UCLA. Tara VanDerveer didn’t wait any longer to make an adjustment. The very next game, she inserted 6-foot-5 freshman forward Cameron Brink into the starting lineup. Since then, Brink has started every game, averaging 20.3 minutes, 10.2 points, and 3.1 blocks. Most importantly, Stanford hasn’t lost again.

Stanford’s Final Four matchup with South Carolina will come down to a battle at the rim. Both teams pride themselves on being two of the best rim protecting teams in the country. Stanford allows opponents to make just 35.6% of their two-point shots, while South Carolina allows them to make just 39.1%. And that starts with the long arms of Cameron Brink and the defensive IQ of South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston – the anchors of each team’s defense.

The Gamecocks, especially, make a conscious effort to funnel ball handlers into Boston. 64.9% of opponents’ field goal attempts against South Carolina come from two-point range, the second highest mark in the country. If South Carolina can run Stanford off the three-point line – a team that has shot 46.3% from three over the last six games – this could be a physical and grueling game. That plays to South Carolina’s advantage. They thrive in games like this, games where they might have to bang for buckets and scrap for steals and fight for offensive boards. It might not be pretty, but South Carolina could surprise some people on Friday. 

South Carolina 71, Stanford 68

No. 1 UConn vs No. 3 Arizona (9:30pm ET on ESPN)

The Huskies know how to bottle up a star player. Just ask their past four NCAA tournament opponents. UConn has faced off with a range of individual superstars – from Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith to Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. And in each of those four games, the opposing team’s leading scorer has finished with less points than their season average. On Friday, the Huskies will need to do the same to Aari McDonald. To say that the Wildcats’ offense centers around McDonald is an understatement. She is the offense. Her usage rate of 35.2% ranks 9th amongst players who appeared in 10 or more games this season. It sometimes feels like McDonald is asked to speed around all five defenders to find a shot.

During the NCAA Tournament, McDonald has arguably played the best basketball of her college career. But really, it has been the Wildcats’ defense that has allowed them to reach their first-ever Final Four. In each of their four tournament wins, they’ve held opponents to an average of 50.5 points per game. On the flip side, in each of their five losses this season, opponents have averaged 67.6 points per game. If the Wildcats play defense, they’ll win. If they don’t, they’ll lose.

Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. Maybe McDonald, the Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, clamps up Paige Bueckers, forcing her into turnovers and tough shots. Or maybe Cate Reese, the Wildcats’ second leading scorer, comes alive after averaging just 8.7 points over the team’s last nine games. Maybe they keep it close enough for some more Aari McDonald late-game heroics.

It sounds good, but don’t expect it to happen. Not against UConn. Not against Geno Auriemma and Paige Bueckers. Arizona might play strong defense, holding all teams to 55.2 points per game, but the Huskies haven’t scored below 63 points all season. This game won’t be the exception.

UConn 75, Arizona 58

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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