Oregon State will play the biggest game in the history of their Women's Basketball program Sunday afternoon, in their first ever appearance in the "Final Four" of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament. Simultaneously, the Beavers will face their most daunting opponent. Ever.
Connecticut is looking for their 4th National Championship in a row, and 11th overall, and Oregon State, and possibly Washington, also from the Pac-12, are the last and only things standing in their way.
And while even those who don't follow women's basketball at all are at least peripherally aware of mighty UConn, and what the Huskies have accomplished. They are on par with UCLA, and the run the "Big Bad Bruins" had back in the 60's & 70's, a program that has been at a level above even the best competition, and sustained that over an extended period of time.
But Storrs, CT, and the far-flung American Conference, assembled of Big-East castoffs and want to be upwardly mobile mid-majors, is also far off the radar for even dedicated Beaver Nation and Pac-12 women's hoops fans.
To get a scouting report on what Oregon State will encounter Sunday, and how the better than most people realize (but not UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who watched one of their Corvallis regional wins in anticipation of the very showdown in Indianapolis that has eventuated) Beavers might challenge the Huskies, we got with The UConn Blog, our SB Nation blog friends we had never met, and Aman Kidwai, who not only manages their site and staff, has been on the UConn beat for a decade, dating to his days as a student there.
Thanks, Aman, for taking time to talk hoops with us!
BTD: The short answer may be there is no way to beat the current UConn juggernaut, but if there is a scheme or scenario that gives you concern that an opponent might be able to pressure them into a game that comes down to the wire?
UCB: If a team has a good low post player and multiple three point shooters then I would say they have a chance, but their shooters need to be red hot and their low post player needs to be a brick wall on defense. You'd have to be really tough on defense overall while also finding a way to consistently put a lot of points on the board.
Keeping UConn from going on big runs is another big key. The Huskies like to get running. Texas actually did a decent job of slowing the transition game early in our Elite 8 matchup, but it just wasn't enough.
BTD: Connecticut's rotation is great, and Breanna Stewart is clearly the best player in NCAA women's basketball. But the Huskies don't play a lot of bench significantly with the game still in contention. Why is that? Could foul trouble be their Achilles heel?
UCB: There are some good bench players who just don't see very much time, like Saniya Chong or Gabby Williams, and there are others who don't have Geno's full trust yet, like backup center Natalie Butler. But foul trouble can absolutely be a challenge, if Stewart and Jefferson get two early, or have three or four early in the second half, it could help keep things close down the stretch.
BTD: Coach Auriemma seems to be at once one of the harshest coaches out there, and yet also one of the most appreciated by his players? How does he manage this balancing act?
UCB: I think the immense success helps, as well as the fact that Geno takes in these highly-rated players, but in Storrs they aren't very special the way they were in high school. They realize how hard they need to work at becoming complete players before they can step on the court for the Huskies, and it makes them elevate their game in a way few coaches probably could.
BTD: With Stewart about to be the #1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, and fellow All-American Moriah Jefferson graduating, can UConn keep up the kind of domination they have during their careers? Or at they likely to back up a little next year, and be, say, only one of the 4 or 5 best teams, instead of being on a whole different level?
UCB: There might be a small step back next year, like they may lose a regular season game, but honestly I think it'll still be a really, really good team in 2016-17.
Katie Lou Samuelson has become a proven scoring threat this year as a freshman. Kia Nurse has been a rock solid player all season. She also led Team Canada to a gold medal in the Pan-Am games and FIBA Americas Championship, winning tournament MVP in the latter.
Morgan Tuck is actually a redshirt junior who may come back next year. Napheesa Collier, Gabby Williams and Saniya Chong will all be back as well, and have been patiently waiting in the wings for more chances to handle the ball. On top of all that the No. 3 recruit in the country is coming in to replace Jefferson.
BTD: Our own Ruth Hamblin was on that Team Canada team as well; that was a pretty formidable group.
BTD: Who will the torch be passed to from Stewart and Jefferson during and following this weekend?
UCB: I want to say Samuelson. She was the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2015, and has shaken off a slow start to the season to become a really dependable scorer this year while also growing in other aspects of her game. She has the height and skill to be a very similar player to Stewart in a lot of ways, though at the moment she isn't necessarily strong enough to bang down low.
BTD: Oregon State has been able to slow down a lot of major offensive threats, especially in the paint this season, mostly because most teams have not faced not only a presence like 6'6"+ Hamblin (and also 240+), but also the much unheralded Deven Hunter, who is 6'3"+ herself, and could play linebacker if she wanted. Who has UConn faced that has presented the kind of physical presence in the paint that Oregon State presents?
UCB: Texas had a 6-foot-7 center Imani Boyette, and many other teams on the schedule this year had a couple of bigger players but it hasn't seemed to be much of a problem for the Huskies. Tuck and Stewart are a formidable and skillful combo down low and Tuck especially has a great knack for finding an open shooter when the defense collapses down low.
BTD: What style of defense will UConn use against the "Swish Sisters", Jamie Weisner and Sydney Wiese, either of whom can score anywhere from point blank out to 25 feet? Will the Huskies shut down the inside game, and dare them to consistently shoot over them? Or will they be aggressive and try to disrupt Oregon State from even getting into their half-court offense, say by pressing?
UCB: I can't pretend to know how Geno plans on stopping two good shooters, but I have to imagine Moriah Jefferson and Kia Nurse will be the ones tasked with slowing them down with some help from Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier off the bench. Jefferson and Nurse are pretty aggressive defenders as is, so I doubt you'll see much full-court press, if at all.
BTD: Turnovers will probably determine if this game becomes another UConn blowout, or if Oregon State can hang in for at least a lot of the game. What does or will the Huskies do to force turnovers, and avoid committing them against a team that will commit to defense over offense?
UCB: The Husky offense can definitely get a bit sloppy at times, especially the Texas game where, as I mentioned, the Longhorns did a good job of preventing UConn from turning up the court quickly the way it likes to. I'd say if UConn wants to keep the turnovers low they'll slow down their pace, and as far as forcing them I don't think Geno needs to scheme anything with the way Moriah Jefferson plays defense. She's a one-woman wrecking crew of steals, broken up passes and general disruption.
Thanks, again, Aman!
Check back with The UConnBlog for late breaking Husky news this weekend!