Women's Championship Game • Perspective
Dawn of an era: Staley and South Carolina now set the standard
Women's National Championship • Perspective
Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The women’s Final Four, packed with powerhouses, should be a basketball delight

Paige Bueckers helped lead Connecticut past N.C. State and into the Final Four. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
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Lower seeds delivered heroic performances in this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Double-digit seeds won nine games, with No. 10 South Dakota scaring Michigan in the Sweet 16 and No. 10 Creighton toppling Iowa and Iowa State to advance to the Elite Eight.

In the end, though, chalk prevailed, as we suspected. Three No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four, where they’ll be joined by No. 2 seed Connecticut, which needed double overtime to edge No. 1 North Carolina State in a thrilling regional final Monday night. That means, for the fourth time in the past five tournaments, the Final Four features exclusively No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

Seeds aside, the powerhouse Final Four participants will arrive in Minneapolis as four of the five most efficient teams in women’s college basketball, per analytics site Her Hoop Stats. South Carolina is 44.5 net points per 100 possessions better than an average team, according to the site — the highest net rating in the nation — followed by Stanford (39.7, third), Connecticut (37.7, fourth) and Louisville (35.8, fifth). (N.C. State, which had the misfortune of meeting Connecticut in Bridgeport, Conn., ranks second.)

In a thriller, Connecticut outlasts N.C. State in double OT for another Final Four berth

And so four of the most talented teams in the country will face off for the national championship, beginning with the semifinals Friday and concluding with the title game Sunday. Here’s a deeper look at what makes this quartet so special.

No. 1 South Carolina (Greensboro Region)

The tournament’s overall top seed, South Carolina is heading to its fourth Final Four after overwhelming Creighton, 80-50, on Sunday. The Gamecocks have impressive size — the average height on their roster is 6-foot-1 — and they use that to their advantage. South Carolina ranks in the top five in offensive rebound rate (46 percent) and scores better than 1.1 points per possession on putbacks.

Plus, national player of the year candidate Aliyah Boston and her teammates shoot better than 51 percent in the post and around the rim, which helps create space for guards Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson on the perimeter. See how Boston’s presence in the post led to a wide-open look for Cooke in South Carolina’s second-round game.

On the other end of the court, South Carolina grabs 76 percent of defensive rebounds and holds opponents to 38.3 percent shooting around the rim. Only Stanford was better at defending the rim (38 percent).

No. 1 Louisville (Wichita Region)

Hailey Van Lith is the Cardinals’ most potent offensive weapon. Her no-dribble jump shot is one of the best in the nation, and she knows how to maximize her team’s chances in transition, whether as the ballhandler or by finding an open lane to the basket.

Still the champ, Stanford finds its way back to the Final Four

Defensively, all eyes should be on 6-3 sophomore Olivia Cochran. It is her job to keep the opponent from grabbing second-chance opportunities. She and her teammates have been up to the challenge — opponents are scoring just 43 percent of the time off putbacks, putting Louisville’s defense in the 97th percentile, per Synergy Sports — and that must continue if the Cardinals are to upset South Carolina for a spot in the title game.

No. 1 Stanford (Spokane Region)

The reigning national champion secured its 15th Final Four appearance thanks to a deep squad with almost too many key contributors to list. Haley Jones, Lexie Hull, Cameron Brink, Hannah Jump and Francesca Belibi are among this season’s most efficient scorers, and each excels in a different area.

Jones is a force around the rim, shooting 56.5 percent near the basket, and runs the show on the pick and roll. Hull is an excellent spot-up shooter, with a 62 percent effective field goal rate. Brink patrols the post (with a 50 percent field goal rate while drawing a foul on one out of every six shot attempts) and converts 65 percent of putbacks for points. Jump will hurt you off screens behind the arc. Belibi can be found down low and cutting to the basket, where she converts almost 73 percent of the time.

That’s an array of offensive threats that few teams can match. Only six schools had more players finish in the top 15 percent of the nation in scoring efficiency — and of those, only Connecticut remains in the tournament.

No. 2 Connecticut (Bridgeport Region)

No conversation about the Huskies can start without discussing reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers. The sophomore averages 14.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists, but those stats don’t come close to illustrating how much she brings to the table. According to Her Hoop Stats, Bueckers has one of the highest player efficiency ratings in the nation (32.1), and she has earned one of the highest win shares per 40 minutes of playing time this season.

Even if you manage to stop Bueckers — and you probably won’t — you still have to contend with a squad that was 25.6 points per game better than an average team (after adjusting for strength of schedule) when Bueckers was out for 19 games with a knee injury. With her on the court, Connecticut has been 36.6 points per game better than an average team.