Women’s college basketball teams set their sights on San Antonio

Kelsey O’Loughlin, Senior Writer

As we approach the final weeks of the women’s college basketball season, let us reflect on the journeys these teams have taken to get to this point. With great anticipation and thrilling matchups, the Big East squad, ACC, SEC, PAC-12 and Big 12 teams all have their eyes set on making the Final Four in San Antonio. Despite receiving less publicity than their male counterparts, the women’s teams are facing a tough and exciting battle to cap off a unique, strange season.

In their first season in the Big East conference, The Huskies of the University of Connecticut (UCONN) are ranked at number one after beating the Georgetown Hoyas 66-40. As new members of the storied conference, the matchup between UCONN and DePaul University on Feb. 1 was the first-ever women’s college basketball game to air on Fox Sports, a historic landmark for the sport.

The Huskies have had an exceptional season. Earlier in the season, they defeated University of Tennessee-Knoxville Lady Vols, 67-61, granting coach Geno Auriemma 1,100 wins faster than any other college coach. This accomplishment was previously held by his former rival coach and great friend, Pat Summitt, the head coach at Tennessee from 1974-2012. Pat brought awareness to women’s basketball and raised the level of excellence in Knoxville, won eight NCAA titles and was a seven-time national coach of the year. Knoxville renamed their basketball court Pat Summitt Court to honor her accomplishments. Achieving this milestone on the Pat Summitt Court was extraordinary for Geno and his Huskies, commemorating the relationship between two coaches and representing a more significant rivalry than the game itself.

But UCONN still faces a number of obstacles to the championship, not the least of which are the South Carolina Gamecocks, the second ranked team playing in the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks lost to UCONN when the former were ranked as number one, with the Huskies in the second-place slot. The overtime three-point shot by Paige Bueckers, named Big East Payer and Freshman of the week, brought UCONN the win.

South Carolina is led by junior guard Destanni Henderson. The Fort Myers native played a crucial role in the 2020 squad that was the first in program history to finish number one in the AP and USA Today coach’s poll. Underclassmen for the Gamecocks also play a crucial role for the 2021 squad; underclassmen Zia Cooke, Aliyah Boston and Victoria Saxton all contributed to SC’s most recent victory over LSU. The Gamecocks fell short to the NC State Wolfpack on Dec. 3, a game in which coach Dawn Staley said her team looked like “they were playing pickup basketball.” Regardless, her team bounced back to win the next 12 games. The talent and experience of this Gamecock squad will only lead to greatness in this year’s March Madness.

Staley brings the same grit and competitiveness from her days as a player to the other side of the court as a coach. As an alumna of the University of Virginia, Staley was named Sports Illustrated Player of the Year in 1991, a two time Naismith Trophy winner (given to the top men’s and women’s college basketball player), and two time ACC player of the year. Her 20 seasons in Columbia include five SEC regular-season championships, four-time SEC coach of the year and an NCAA National Championship in 2017.

The Louisville Cardinals finish the week off in the third spot with a 19-1 record. The squad leverages veteran experience to navigate them through this strange season. The team’s matchup versus the Syracuse Orange has been postponed due to a mandatory COVID-19 pause. The Cardinals also lost to NC State by a six-point deficit, causing them to drop from number one. This season’s most essential player is lone senior Dana Evans. The Gary, Indiana native has been the common denominator to the Cardinals’ success for the last four years. A senior-class award nominee and two-time ACC player of the year, Evans has truly done it all. To put an exclamation mark on her undergraduate career, Evans scored 25 points on her senior night to defeat Georgia Tech on Feb. 11. Even though this squad has had to pause and postpone twice due to COVID, the Cardinals are ready to wreak havoc on more teams.

The Stanford Cardinals play in richly talented PAC-12. Tara VanDerveer, in her 41st season at the helm, has brought her squad to a number six ranking. Wins against number 10 UCLA and number six Arizona have tested this team’s grit and resilience on the road. This Cardinal has also been victorious against number 11 Oregon, first in Maples Pavilion and possibly Monday in Eugene. VanDerveer also passed her former friend and rival Pat Summitt, as she became the all-time winningest coach in women’s college basketball history. One of Tara’s steady leaders for this year’s team is Anna Wilson, a fifth-year senior from Seattle. The younger sister to Russell Wilson has made a lasting impression during her time as a Stanford women’s basketball player. With consistency and experience, Wilson has been a critical contributor to this year’s squad. The Cardinal have just four matches left before the PAC-12 tournament begins in Las Vegas.

All of these teams have shown they have the skill and heart to compete on the biggest stages. Now it is just a matter of keeping up their stellar play as March Madness approaches in order to book their spot in San Antonio.

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