By Okon Ekpenyong and Tonya Kelly, MEd (Sportzkelz Media)
It started with 68 teams, then there were four, #1 South Carolina emerging from the Greensboro region, # 1 Louisville from the Wichita region, #1 Sanford from the Spokane region, and #2 Connecticut from the Bridgeport region to reach the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball final four. The road to Target Center wasn’t easy, which many would consider a historic landmark to play in, but it will make the four teams feel right at home.
In the semifinal game on Friday, April 1, South Carolina vs. Louisville winner will play the winner of Connecticut vs. Stanford, with the champion crowned on April 3. And this will be the second time that the state of Minnesota will host the event at Target Center. The first one came in 1995 when Connecticut defeated Tennesse 70-64 to claim its first time in the program’s history. Since then, the Uconn Huskies have captured ten more titles, making them the winnest program in NCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball history.
Target Center is the home of the Minnesota Lynx, who are four times Women’s National Basketball Association Champions. It is also home to the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball Association. The late legendary singer Prince, a Minnesota native, last performed at Target Center on December 10, 1997. On April 21, 2016, when he tragically died at his nearby home in Chanhassen, Minnesota, thousands of fans flocked outside Target Center to pay tribute to the fallen Minnesota musical icon.
Uconn Sophmore Paige Bueckers, a Minnesota native, returns home to what could be one of the greatest moments of her extraordinary basketball career. Bueckers was a star at Hopkins High School before committing to Uconn in 2020. After her high school career, Bueckers took home the Gatorade National Player of the year, Morgan Wootten Player of the year, Naismith Prep Player of the year, and USA Basketball Female Athlete of the year. As a freshman at UConn, she was the AP and Naismith College Player of the year.
“It’s extra motivation to go back home and have the Final Four there and be a part of that experience. But honestly, wherever the location, what gym, what court, I’m just excited to be out with my sisters and play another game,” Bueckers said. The former Hopkins star scored 15 of her 27 points in the two overtimes to help her team advance. Paige has battled injuries much of her career, and she missed a few games this season.
“There’s going to be highs and lows. It’s not always going to be easy. There will be hard times but staying confident in myself and trusting that I will get it back,” Paige commented on her return from injury after missing 19 games this season.
How they got here
On March 27, 2021, Stanford, the defending champions, defeated Texas 59-50 for a chance to defend its title, while South Carolina, the overall top team in the country and winner of the 2017 NCAA championship, ousted Creighton 80-50 to reach the Final Four again.
In yesterday’s matchup, #2 Connecticut beat #1 NC State 91-87 in double overtime to win their fourteen straight elite eight-game and return to the final four. In their first appearance in the “final four” since 2018, 1st seeded Louisville defeated third-seeded Michigan 62-50, and they continue to strive for their first title in program history.
Connecticut Vs. NC State
When a trip to the final four was on the line, NC State and UConn reminded us why we love March Madness because anything can happen, just like last night’s Oscars. NC State Head Coach Wes Moore said that the team would be losing four great players, seniors: Kai Crutchfield, Elissa Cunane, Kayla Jones, and Raina Perez. Coach Wes congratulated those players for their commitment to the program and wished the result was different tonight.
UConn’s campus is in Storrs, Connecticut, about one hour and fifteen minutes from the Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was a practically home-court advantage for the Huskies, and it was loud. And this is what one of NC State players had to say about playing in the Huskies’ territory. “Well, I just tuned the crowd out and played hard for my team, did everything I could to get stops, rebounds, and score, just anything to help the team. Like when I’m on the court, I get zoned out. I didn’t hear the crowd,” NC State JAKIA brown-turner said.
As NC State’s Wes Moore talked about not folding, the team’s strength shows why the game went into double overtime. “I think character and those things matter, and tonight that character almost got us over the hump because many teams in this environment down ten would have packed it in. They don’t — their heart doesn’t do that,” Moore said.
No. 1 Stanford moved past No. 2 Texas Sunday, 59-50. And the team is in the position of defending its 2021 title.
Louisville defeated Albany, Gonzaga, Tennesse, and Michigan twice now, once during the regular season and on March 28, to advance to their first Final Four since 2018.
“Coach Walz is this program. I would say a personal story; when I was on my official visit, he told me in a one-on-one meeting said, if you commit, I will take us back to the Final Four”, Louisville star Kianna Smith said.
It is the now fourth final four under Head Coach Jeff Walz, and so “I know he can lead us to a national championship,” Smith added.
Last season’s loss in the national semifinals was heartbreaking, but South Carolina’s determination to return is the team’s strength. This year, the final four will be the fourth for Gamecocks within the last five years, and they would love nothing more than to head back to the title game to claim their second title since winning the first one in 2017. The team’s national player of the year candidate, Aliyah Boston, and her teammate came into the season averaging 70.8 points per game the regular season. They are favored to win it all after defeating Howard, Miami (FL), UNC, Creighton and will play #1 Louisville in the semifinal game.
Whether it is on the Men’s or Women’s side, there’s always a program that breaks out and has those cinderella moments each March Madness. Saint Peter’s University Basketball team out of Jersey City, New Jersey, where this year’s hero on the men’s side by reaching the elite eight as the fifteen seeded for the first time in the program’s history. The Peacocks would lose 69-49 against UNC, denying them the chance to go to the final four in New Orleans.
“We generated a lot of publicity for our school. Our tournament run caught the attention of everybody who wanted to come here. It will impact everybody who knows about the school now, just from now on,” Peacock’s junior guard Daryl Banks III said. The Peacocks shocked the world when they defeated #2 Kentucky, #7 Murray State, #3 Purdue before falling to UNC, which would have sent them to the final four.
Creighton was this year’s cinderella story on the women’s side, and though their dream season ended, the team’s coach Jim Flaney had a positive message for his players after reaching the program’s first-ever elite eight. Before losing to the South Carolina team, they defeated Seton Hall to capture the Big East Tournament title and then knocked off #7 Colorado, #2 Iowa, and #3 Iowa in the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
“To our team, just really been an unreal ten days. But also a tremendous season. We’re super proud of what we accomplished. I think it’s not just how we play on the court. It’s who we are off the court. March Madness is about surviving and advancing, but the experience itself means so much more for the student-athletes. “It’s been a great experience, playing in the NCAA tournament and making a deep run. As you said, we’re a young team,” Lauren Jensen, one of the Creighton players, said.
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