ESPN’s exclusive coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Presented by Capital One has reached its final stage with some unexpected names advancing to the Final Four in New Orleans on Sunday, April 7, and Tuesday, April 9. ESPN and WatchESPN will offer full studio and game coverage throughout the weekend, starting with the national semifinals on Sunday: No. 5 seed Louisville vs. No. 2 California at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by No. 1 seeds Connecticut vs. Notre Dame at 8:30 p.m. The national championship game will air Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.
ESPN’s top women’s basketball analysts – Doris Burke, Kara Lawson, Rebecca Lobo and Carolyn Peck – all weighed in with their thoughts on the Final Four teams.
Thoughts on No. 2 seed California
Burke: Lindsay Gottlieb is one of the exciting young coaches in women’s college basketball. She is a passionate, dynamic and a positive force with her team. The Bears have a terrific backcourt with Brittany Boyd and Layshia Clarendon, and a relentless commitment to the offensive glass. The team relies on its ability to get into the open floor and score off their defense. In the half court, Clarendon has to deliver for this team to have a chance to win.
Lawson: Cal is a loose and confident group. Their defense and rebounding carry the day and Layshia Clarendon is a very difficult player to guard, fantastic in the mid-range game.
Lobo: The Golden Bears have found a way to win the close games during this tournament — beating their second-round and regional final opponents in overtime. They want to push tempo and have an athletic team that is built to run. Layshia Clarendon is a terrific break-down guard who can also score from three and their inside game is anchored by Gennifer Brandon, who averages 11 rebounds. Cal hits the glass hard and gets second opportunities as a result. They have struggled scoring at times this season against zone defenses and shoot only 61 percent from the free-throw line. I’m eager to see how they handle playing against Louisville’s different defensive schemes.
Peck: Lindsay Gottlieb has to be on cloud nine right now. Cal is dangerous; if the score is kept close, they are always in the position to win. The team is fast and physical, plus they are a defensive team. Layshia Clarendon is a rising star who makes clutch plays. Louisville has to be concerned about rebounding and defending Cal in the paint.
Thoughts on No. 5 seed Louisville
Burke: This Cinderella is not running home at the stroke of midnight. As you watched the Cardinals progress through prohibitive favorite Baylor and then dispatch mighty Tennessee, the one attribute you have to assign this team is fearlessness. Jeff Walz might be a bit surprised at their advancement to the Final Four – the need to purchase an extra shirt for the regional final gives evidence to that – but this man can coach. He institutes game plans and has both the willingness and capability to change their attack based on their opponent. It will not shock me if he has the Cardinals in the championship game for the second time in his career.
Lawson: Changing defenses makes Louisville dangerous, along with activity and pressure that help to mask their lack of interior size. They are playing very confident on the offensive end and Shoni Schimmel’s confidence makes them hard to beat.
Lobo: Louisville is carrying the most momentum into the Final Four after pulling off the biggest upset in the history of the women’s tournament by beating Baylor and following that up with another terrific offensive performance against the team with the longest tournament tradition in Tennessee.
The Cardinals have fully embraced the underdog role and are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence in themselves, one another and their coach. Jeff Walz isn’t afraid to try a variety of defensive schemes and his last two opponents have been confused by them. Shoni Schimmel is a fearless guard with deep range and Antonita Slaughter is the X-Factor — a streaky shooter who can drain 3s and mix it up inside.
Louisville will defensively limit what their opponent wants to do and when they are hot on the offensive end too, they can beat anyone.
Peck: They don’t have super star in Angel McCoughtry, which is a big difference from when they were in the Final Four last time. Shoni Schimmel is a rising star but she is not Angel. This has to be a total team effort. They have five players, who can shoot the 3, they can defend any position on the floor and they don’t back down from anyone. Jeff Walz has the team prepared physically and mentally, and they believe. That is half the battle to get to the Final Four. They are a dangerous team and proved they can pull off the upset.
Thoughts on No. 1 seed Notre Dame
Burke: When you put great leadership skills in the mind of one of the most talented guards in the country, you get the driving force that Skylar Diggins has proven to be for the Irish. Couple Diggins with the relentless and fearless Kayla McBride and you have the most dangerous and difficult guard tandem in the country. To sustain the graduation of three key players, and find a way back to the Final Four is really impressive, and Muffet McGraw deserves Coach of the Year honors.
Lawson: Notre Dame is a complete team and disruptive on the defensive end. They have composure and balance on the offensive end which is from Skylar Diggins as the good leader she is.
Lobo: They simply know how to win. They run terrific offense and have multiple scoring options on the perimeter. Skylar Diggins is the best leader in women’s college basketball right now. She knows how to get her teammates involved but also when to take over herself. They run great offense and play off one another well. The Irish know how to draw contact, get to the line and make more free throws than any other team in the country. Combine that with their ability to defend, and right now ND has to be the favorite to win the National Championship.
Peck: Skylar Diggins is playing her best basketball at the right time to bring her career to a conclusion. If she continues to play hard and lead the team, ND will be cutting down the nets on Tuesday.
Thoughts on No. 1 seed Connecticut
Burke: The changing dynamic for the Huskies in this NCAA Championship has been the improved play of their guards and the emergence of freshman Breanna Stewart. Stewart has the ability to play inside or out and can use her length and leaping ability to create havoc and mismatches at the four spot. Stefanie Dolson’s health, Kelly Faris’ ability to be the lockdown defender and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ ability to be a dynamic shooter and scorer will be keys to their national championship hopes.
Lawson: Brenna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson are playing at a higher level than during the regular season. They are a high-scoring, unselfish group and their defense makes you work harder for good shots than any other team.
Lobo: This is a very different UConn team than the one we saw lose to Notre Dame in the BIG EAST Championship. The main difference is the freshmen. Breanna Stewart is playing with confidence and attacking on both the offensive and defensive ends and Moriah Jefferson is changing tempo when she enters the game by adding quickness to the Connecticut backcourt that is much needed. The Huskies have the best 3-point shooter in the country in Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and a reenergized Bria Hartley. If Stefanie Dolson can continue to play through her foot injuries, UConn has a great chance to beat Notre Dame in their fourth meeting of the season.
Peck: Right now they are getting play from freshmen Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart. To have these key players ready at this point in the season is good for Huskies. It is also imperative that Bria Hartley brings the confidence that Geno has been looking for all season. If she is confident playing the point –– that is what will propel them to get past Notre Dame. They also have to find a way to keep Stefanie Dolson healthy and on the floor.