What to Watch in the Women’s Final Four

The N.C.A.A. women’s tournament field has finally been narrowed to four teams. Top-seeded South Carolina, Stanford and Louisville all validated the selection committee’s rankings, while No. 2-seeded Connecticut beat No. 1 North Carolina State to reach its 14th consecutive Final Four, keeping a record streak alive.

Semifinal play will tip off at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Friday at 7 p.m. with Louisville versus South Carolina, then continue with Stanford versus Connecticut at 9:30 p.m. All games will air on ESPN, and the winners will continue on to Sunday’s national championship game.

Here are some things to look out for as you’re watching the women’s Final Four.

Louisville vs. South Carolina, 7 p.m., ESPN

Coach Dawn Staley of South Carolina.Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This is a matchup of No. 1 seeds and, as such, should be a meeting of equals. But the Gamecocks have been ranked No. 1 in the A.P. poll all season and have lost only twice. Louisville, a perennial tournament contender for the past decade under coach Jeff Walz, is fighting for its first title — and for the respect the players feel they still haven’t received.

South Carolina enters the game with its coach, Dawn Staley, and its best player, the 6-foot-5 junior forward Aliyah Boston, having just picked up the Naismith coach and player of the year awards. Boston earned her trophy the hard way, muscling past opponents around the basket and fighting for rebounds as well as blocking shots.

The Cardinals can match her size with the senior forward Liz Dixon and the sophomore starter Olivia Cochran, but their ability to compete with Boston’s finesse and strength — her refined footwork and ability to continue playing through contact — will be tested.

Louisville’s best player is the 5-foot-7 sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith, who has spent the tournament stuffing her highlight reel and scoring prolifically. Van Lith has made 47 percent of her shots from the field in tournament play, even though she rarely has an open look and is smaller than most of her opponents.

Hailey Van Lith of Louisville practicing on Thursday in Minneapolis.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

She’ll go head-to-head with the South Carolina senior Destanni Henderson, who is not only dangerous from behind the 3-point line, but an excellent defender. Van Lith has made it clear that she and the Cardinals will be playing like the underdogs that Vegas believes them to be (South Carolina is favored by 8 points), but this is likely Henderson’s last shot at a title before she enters the W.N.B.A. draft.

The Gamecocks have made their name as a defense-minded group that shut down some of the best teams in the country during the regular season — including Connecticut and Stanford. They had one of the toughest schedules in Division I this season and still emerged as the top team in women’s college basketball, with the only ding on their résumé being a surprise loss to Kentucky on a buzzer-beater in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

They haven’t matched up against Louisville this season, though, and the Cardinals also pride themselves on energetic and physical defensive play. The teams’ similarities could make for a low-scoring game in which whoever is able to cobble together the most offense will come out on top. Louisville has been shooting better from the free throw line this season, which could prove the deciding factor.

Connecticut vs. Stanford, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Olivia Nelson-Ododa of Connecticut drove to the basket against N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane during the regional final.Credit…David Butler Ii/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The defending champion Stanford Cardinal have just one more obstacle to competing for their first repeat title: the Connecticut Huskies, the team that has won more back-to-back championships than any other in Division I women’s college basketball. Stanford returned all but one starter from its title team, but it will need its veterans to perform at their best against the Huskies — specifically, the sophomore phenomenon Paige Bueckers.

The Final Four in the Men’s and Women’s Tournaments

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The national semifinals. March Madness is narrowing down to the top teams, and will culminate with the Final Four teams facing off in the women’s and men’s tournaments on April 1 and April 2, respectively. Here’s a closer look at the semifinals:

Men’s: Duke vs. North Carolina. The Duke Blue Devils, which beat Arkansas to clinch a spot in the Final Four in New Orleans, will play against their fiercest rival, North Carolina, after the Tar Heels made short work of underdog St. Peter’s.

Men’s: Villanova vs. Kansas. After trailing at halftime, the Kansas Jayhawks dominated the second half of their game against Miami to set up a matchup against the Villanova Wildcats, which outlasted lower seeded Houston.

Women’s: South Carolina vs. Louisville. The top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks proved too tough for Creighton and advanced to its fourth national semifinal under Coach Dawn Staley. They will face the Louisville Cardinals, which beat Michigan in their fourth straight regional final.

Women’s: Stanford vs. Connecticut. After injuries, losses to unranked teams and a second-round scare, the UConn Huskies advanced to their 14th straight Final Four, where they will face Stanford, the reigning champion. The Cardinal bested Texas to reach the national semifinals.

The Huskies and the Cardinal both had overwhelming support from their crowds during the round of 8. Connecticut effectively had home-court advantage in Bridgeport — just a stone’s throw from Storrs — while Stanford played in Spokane, where the teammates and twin sisters Lexie and Lacie Hull grew up and led their high school to two state championships.

In Minneapolis, Connecticut will likely have the louder cheering section thanks to Bueckers, who played at Hopkins High School in the Minneapolis suburbs. The Cardinal haven’t played without the fans on their side in the tournament so far, and in what looks to be a tight game, that support could give the Huskies an edge.

Stanford’s 6-foot-4 Cameron Brink and Connecticut’s 6-foot-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa are both athletic post players who move well around the basket to score and rebound, block shots, and, especially in Nelson-Ododa’s case, find their teammates to facilitate a quick offense.

Cameron Brink of Stanford playing against Texas in the regional final on Sunday.Credit…Young Kwak/Associated Press

They also both get into foul trouble often, each averaging 2.8 fouls per game. Crucial for both teams, then, will be keeping their best post players in the game and able to play freely. Both Stanford and Connecticut are capable of applying intense defensive pressure, and Brink and Nelson-Ododa will both have to stay patient as they maneuver for open looks around the basket.

Standford, which enters the game with the longest active winning streak of any Division I women’s team — 24 consecutive victories — has the size advantage. Even its guards are tall and can find shots against the most diligent defenders, as Texas discovered in the round of 8. Because Connecticut is just as skilled, the Cardinal will need to exploit whatever mismatches they can find — even 6-foot-1 Haley Jones versus the 5-foot-11 Bueckers.

If Jones and Bueckers guard each other during Friday’s game, it could make for one of the best pairings of the tournament. Both are exceptionally skilled as facilitators and scorers, making plays on just about every part of the court.

The Stanford and Connecticut coaches, Tara VanDerveer and Geno Auriemma, are the winningest and second-winningest coaches in women’s college basketball history. The Huskies own the series by a large margin, but this game will still offer another opportunity for two of the sport’s most important coaches to compete on its biggest stage.

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