Final Four preview
By Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated
UConn (1) vs. Notre Dame (1)
Who To Watch: UConn guard Diana Taurasi has grown up in front of our eyes during this tournament. The freshman plays with a court presence and savvy beyond her years and no player left in the tournament -- perhaps even the nation -- has more range from the outside.
Taurasi finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against Louisiana Tech and is averaging 20.5 points over her last two games. At 6-foot-1, she can shoot over most guards and presents a nightmare of a matchup for the Irish.
Notre Dame fans are too familiar with Sue Bird, the heady All-America point guard whose game-winning fadeaway jumper in the Big East Tournament final left Irish eyes crying across the country.
Though the Huskies frontcourt stars have been overshadowed by Bird and Taurasi in this tournament, junior forward Swin Cash has been a force on the boards, and Tamika Williams showed the kind of skills against Louisiana Tech (18 points and 10 rebounds) that earned her the National High School Player of the Year three years ago.
Speaking of Player-of-the-Year honors, the focus of UConn's attention will be on college basketball's center of attention -- Notre Dame's Ruth Riley.
The senior has proven impossible to stop down low and used her veteran savvy and strength against Vandy's Chantelle Anderson to get her All-America counterpart into foul trouble early. Then she destroyed the Commodores in the paint.
Forward Kelly Simeon has played big against UConn this season, scoring 15 and 16 points, respectively, in the two previous games. Shooting guard Alicia Ratay, one of the nation's best 3-point shooters, opens up the post for Riley when she's on from long distance.
Senior point guard Niele Ivey is returning to her native St. Louis for the Final Four and you know she'll be extra jacked for this game.
What To Expect: In its 92-76 win over Connecticut on Jan. 15, Notre Dame keyed everything off Riley. When UConn played her straight up, she took the ball to the goal. When they double-teamed her, she kicked it outside to Ratay.
As always, the offense will go through the All-America center, with Ivey and Simeon trying to get the ball to her in good post position. Look for Bird to deny Ivey the ball since the Notre Dame offense breaks down when it's in someone else's hands.
Emotion carried the day the last time these two met when All-America forward Shea Ralph suffered a season-ending injury late in the first half.
Since then Bird and Taurasi have stepped up and Notre Dame will be facing a far more confident player in Taurasi -- who was no wallflower to begin with anyway. Notre Dame junior Erika Haney and Ratay are likely to draw the assignment against the freshman and will have their work cut out for them.
The Huskies will run as they always do and look to take the open 3-pointer. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Riley's presence in the lane in the first game forced the Huskies into a jump-shooting team. UConn was 11 for 33 from behind the arc in that game and they'll obviously need to improve on that to win.
Don't be surprised if either Williams or Cash becomes an offensive force early. The Huskies need a third scorer to emerge along with the two guards.
Who Wins: In the last meeting between these two superpowers, UConn, aided by a ravenous Gampel Pavilion crowd and the clutch shooting of Bird, showed the heart of a champion.
Losing two All-Americas should have spelled curtains for the Huskies but this team possesses a working-class mien despite its pedigree. Once again, this game is going down to the wire but we think Riley will eventually wear down the Huskies in the post.
Don't be fooled by the word semifinal: This is the game is for the national championship, and Notre Dame pulls it out by the length of a leprechaun.
Purdue (3) vs. Southwest Missouri State (5)
Who To Watch: Purdue is led by Katie Douglas and Camille Cooper, a pair of seen-it-all, done-it-all seniors who have shown an affinity for playing big in big games.
The 6-foot-1 Douglas (Purdue coach Kristie Curry calls her a "soldier") has a marvelous inside-outside game, with the size to post up smaller guards and decent range from behind the arc. She's also someone to root for as she's lost both her parents to cancer over the past three years.
Cooper is a force inside and uses her body well for offensive rebounds and putbacks.
Guard Kelly Komara, filling in at the point for the injured Erica Valek, finished with 20 points and five assists against Xavier. Douglas, Cooper and Komara all played on Purdue's 1999 championship team and make the Boilermakers as mentally tough as any team in the nation.
What more can you say about Jackie Stiles, the Southwest Missouri State guard whose dramatic flair and marvelous play has been the story of the tournament?
Stiles can kill with you the jumper, she can drive to the basket, and is automatic at the foul line. If the rest of the country had overlooked fellow guard Tara Mitchem before the tournament, they sure know her know. She scored 40 against Toledo when Stiles went out with a concussion and finished with 23 points on 7-of-7 shooting in its Elite Eight game win over Washington.
Forward Erika Rante, at 6-foot-4, provides the inside presence for SMS and must play big against Cooper. Point guard Melody Campbell gets lost amid the Stiles hype but her teammates cite her leadership as the glue to the team.
What To Expect: SMS likes to score in transition so they'll be speeding up the tempo from the jump. If the Lady Bears are going to go down in this game, they'll be going down firing so expect Stiles and Mitchem to heave at least 35- 40 shots combined.
So how to you stop Stiles? You can't. She scored 42 against LSU, 32 against Rutgers, and 41 against Duke -- all excellent defensive teams.
Purdue will probably guard her with a number of players and hope to get her into foul trouble. Even so, SMS buckled but did not break against Washington when Stiles fouled out the game with less than four minutes remaining.
Often in games this big it's usually a third player who steps up and makes a difference.
SMS must pay close attention to Komara, a streak shooter who can score quickly when she's on. The Lady Bears will also have a touch matchup with Purdue freshmen Shereka Wright and Shalicia Hurns, a pair of gifted and athletic future stars.
With the game in St. Louis, a mere 220-miles away from the SMS campus, the Savvis Center will be a den of support for the Lady Bears. A sign of things to come: The Boilermakers lost twice this season to Iowa, a team with great guards and good outside shooters. Sound familiar?
Who Wins: Curry was honest at the pre-game press conference on Thursday when somebody asked her about Stiles. "Can we stop her?" she asked. "No one has stopped her. We're going to try."
It's going to be fun watching them attempt to slowdown a team and a player as hot as Cabo San Lucas. By the time this one is over, however, they may be renaming the Savvis Center into the Stiles Center.
College basketball's best two-hour drama, The Jackie Stiles Show, gets picked up for one more game. SMS will face Notre Dame for it all on Sunday.