No team that reached the women's Final Four made more three-point shots this season than Stanford, but it seemed like the Cardinal couldn't buy a bucket during Friday night's 63-58 loss to UConn.
The Cardinal struggled from everywhere on the court, opening 1 for 10 while missing jumpers and layups alike. Stanford's leading scorer, sophomore forward Cameron Brink, wasn't immune to what ailed them, starting 0 for 5 from the field herself. Stanford finished 4 for 23 from beyond the arc.
Senior guard Lexie Hull, one of Stanford's three players who shoot 40% from three-point range, missed all four of her attempts while going 2 for 12 from the floor. Junior guard Haley Jones had her third straight double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but went 0 for 5 from deep.
"We could've moved the ball better," Jones said. "We could've cut harder, screened better, whatever it may be. But I think we left a lot out there unsaid, so that's hard to kind of swallow that pill where you leave a game feeling you didn't leave your best out there."
Despite missing 12 straight threes in the second half, the Cardinal kept the score close with Jones and Brink, who finished with 15 points, often finding success in the paint.
"When we looked good, we got the ball inside to Cam," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "She maybe rushed a couple times, but she finished for us, and we unfortunately really didn't get on offensive boards the way we needed to."
Stanford lost the rebounding battle as well, 46-37, and were unable to chase down many of its missed shots with just six points off second chances.
"The shots we missed are still shots I want my teammates to take," Jones said. "I can't fault them for that. Nine times out of 10, I think they're going to make it. Tara will probably yell at me for not crashing the boards, but I think it's going in."
Solving a top defense
Louisville's vaunted defense brought the Cardinals to within a game of the national championship, but they were no match for the South Carolina juggernaut during the Gamecocks' 72-59 win in the Final Four on Friday night.
The heartbeat of the Cardinals defense – senior forward Emily Engstler – tied the NCAA tournament record with her fourth steal in the third quarter, giving her 23 for the tourney and tying the mark set in 1998 by Old Dominion's Ticha Penicheiro. But she fouled out in the fourth quarter when diving for a bad pass, ending her chance to break the record and further opening the lanes for the Gamecocks offense.
Led by forward Aliyah Boston, the Gamecocks dominated in the paint and eventually got their three-point shots to fall while racking up 72 points, the most against Louisville all season. The Cardinals' tournament run was built on stifling defense, forcing 21 turnovers per game. The Gamecocks committed just six turnovers while building the game's largest lead, 51-36, in the third quarter.
Cardinals coach Jeff Walz lamented a few uncharacteristic mistakes.
"The first half, we had three possessions where we got completely lost on defense," he said. "It gave them three uncontested layups under the basket."
Walz called the sequence "a dagger."
"When you give up the easy ones, it's like, God, we worked so hard," he added. "You've also got to give South Carolina credit."
South Carolina played cleanly through the Cardinals' stingy press defense that focused on Boston, the national player of the year. The Gamecocks finished with 15 turnovers, 13 off steals by Louisville, illustrating the efficiency of the nation's No. 1-ranked team.
Boston delivered a critical blow to Louisville's defense at the end of the third quarter with an offensive rebound that led to a layup and Engstler's fourth foul.
"It was really big," Boston said. "Just because it gave us momentum and it got somebody else in foul trouble, which we can always benefit from."
Passing this test
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley remembers well how a rare loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament title game unfolded. South Carolina blew a 12-point lead entering the fourth quarter, losing 64-62, while being outscored 21-7 in the final frame in only their second loss of the season.
There was a familiar feeling in Staley on Friday as the Cardinals went on an 8-1 run in the third quarter.
"I'm like, 'OK, here we go,'" Staley said. "With anything, life in general, it's going to test you. You either pass that test or you have to retake them."
"We look forward to other tests to take," she added.
'The game just opened up'
Shot after shot clanked off the rim and backboard as the Gamecocks opened the game 1 of 8 from beyond the three-point line. That helped keep the Cardinals close, especially as Louisville's defense adjusted to crowd Boston in the paint. But then the shots started to fall. Gamecocks guards Destanni Henderson and Cooke combined for three consecutive three-pointers in the third quarter.
Afterward, Boston scored 13 of her 23 points as her teammates started hitting from deep.
"The game just opened up," Boston said. "We were able to get our game going."
Not only will the Cardinals lose two senior starters in Engstler and Kianna Smith, but assistant coach Sam Purcell is exiting to become the head coach at Mississippi State. Purcell has been by Walz's side for nine of his 15 seasons at Louisville, including two Final Four runs.
"Well, it was Sam's game plan tonight," Walz deadpanned. "So, I mean I don't know if that bodes well for Mississippi State or not. No, I'm just kidding. Sam's been fantastic. We've spent nine great years together."
Staley nods to Rubio
Staley went back in time at Target Center when she appeared on ESPN's set at halftime of the Stanford-UConn game.
She recounted all the things her team did right in its Final Four semifinal victory over Louisville, including distributing the ball with generosity.
"Being Ricky Rubio," she said, remembering the point guard who played on that same Target Center court in two separate stints with the Timberwolves.
New Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson was at the Target Center, sitting in the stands to cheer on his younger sister, Anna Wilson, a starting guard for defending champion Stanford, in the second semifinal against UConn.
Stanford players took the court for pregame warmups in Cardinal soccer shirts and the initials "KM" written on tape wrapped around their wrists, honoring Stanford soccer goalkeeper Katie Meyer, who died by suicide last month at age 22. Meyer played a key role in Stanford's national title in 2019 with two saves on decisive penalty kicks.
Two days after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left wrist suffered during UConn's Elite Eight win over North Carolina State, Huskies senior Dorka Juhasz was at Target Center with her arm in a sling. Without Juhasz, the 6-5 forward who was second on the team averaging 5.7 rebounds, reserve guard Nika Muhl tied a career high with eight rebounds in the Huskies' win.
Star Tribune writer Jerry Zgoda contributed reporting.