The adage is that talent wins games. Throughout the weekend at the WBCA Convention at the women's Final Four, many coaches have lamented the unequal playing field due to conferences, money, locations, schools, and more that lead to some schools possessing an abundance of talent, while others lack the nationally-known names.
Despite the talent on the court in the opening game of the 2015 Final Four, including a battle of the top two players in the class of 2014, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw demonstrated the importance of coaching.
Notre Dame has talent. Many believed that Jewell Loyd should have been the NCAA Player of the Year, and Brianna Turner was last year's #2 ranked recruit. However, it was McGraw's gameplan that ultimately made the difference. McGraw employed a triangle-and-2 defense and used Madison Cable and Hannah Huffman to face-guard South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell for much of the game.
Mitchell took 11 shots to score her 11 points, but failed to get to the free-throw line. With Mitchell stymied, the Gamecocks most consistent offense was offensive rebounding. Freshmen A'ja Wilson led USC with 20 points and 9 rebounds, but senior Aleighsa Welch grabbed 9 of her teams 16 offensive rebounds.
With Mitchell denied, Notre Dame forced the ball into the hands of reluctant shooters who either refused to shoot or missed open or semi-contested shots. With Welch dominating the backboards, USC often had more than one opportunity to score, but their 2-for-12 shooting from the three-point line and 7-for-16 shooting at the free-throw line ultimately was their undoing.
Despite the problems shooting the basketball, USC had one last chance to call timeout and run a play with 14 seconds remaining to win the game. About the final play, USC head coach Dawn Staley said, "It was just horn's action, a play that was pretty effective for us all game.
"But they were hedging out and they made it difficult for her [Mitchell] to have an angle to get to the basket. They did a really good job of shading her and forcing her outside of the paint."
Ultimately, the play proved predictable, as McGraw was again one step ahead. She said, "We thought that Mitchell would get the ball and there would probably be a ball screen involved. We talked about how important it was going to be.
"Because we were still in the triangle and 2 at that point. We talked about how important it was going to be for the person to come out and hedge on the ball screen. And I thought that was probably as good a hedge as we've had."
McGraw foresaw the play and her players were prepared. She had the answers for the size of South Carolina, and led the Irish to what has become a predictable season-ending game against UConn. Despite her gameplan and preparation, the old adage is true: Players have to make plays.
In this case, McGraw summoned the junior Huffman for the biggest defensive possession of her life. After sitting on the bench for most of the second half, and totaling only 5 minutes on the night, she was thrust into action to defend the All-American Mitchell.
With some help from her teammates, Huffman forced Mitchell away from the basket and into the corner. Mitchell managed only a desperation heave toward the basket, as once again McGraw's decision paid off and the Irish moved into a date with UConn on Tuesday night in the National Championship game with a hard-fought 66-65 victory.