COACH SPEAK : WOMEN’S FINAL FOUR COACHES TELECONFERENCE & POSTGAME : APRIL 2 & 5 & 7
By Leo Haggerty

Had a chance to get into the Women’s Final Four Coaches Teleconference on Tuesday.  Luckily, I was able to ask two questions of three of the four participating coaches.

My apology to Connecticut Head Coach Geno Auriemma.  I wasn’t able to make it to his 9 am time slot.  As you all know, I am still working in the Hillsborough County Public Schools and our “Testing Season” just began on Monday.  Therefore, I was administering one of the plethora of tests I will be proctoring over the next two months.

I was able to catch up with Oregon HC Kelly Graves and Baylor HC Kim Mulkey along with Notre Dame HC Muffet McGraw.  Check out their responses to my generic question to all as well as a specific one that pertains to their programs.

Also, I will be updating during the tournament with coaches and players commentary to my questions.  Hey, you know I’m not shy so there will be additions to the original article.

TELECONFERENCE

LH : Was there a point or a game during the season where you said to yourself that we may be good enough to get to Tampa and compete for the national championship?

KG : Well, I thought two games that really stood out for us. The first Mississippi State game. They had been there, they had been to the championship game two years in a row. We were able to win against what was, again, a great, great team at that time back in December. Then when we went down to Stanford and beat Stanford. Listen, they’re the standard by which we’re all judged out here in the west. We were able to take it to them the way we did. I thought those were real good barometers as to how good we could be, when we were playing at our best, what we could accomplish. Obviously we played pretty well during the tournament. I would say those are two of the moments during the year. I would add maybe one more. I thought the semifinal game in the conference tournament, we were really banged up, playing on little or no rest. Listen, I know everybody is banged up a little bit at this juncture. I thought the way we gutted that win out and beat a very good UCLA team, I thought that also told me, hey, this team has the championship mettle, the toughness you’re going to need to get to a Final Four.

KG : I thought it was huge. We won the game because we executed well and made baskets and defended the way we needed to. But there’s no question the crowd helped. There are those moments in the game when you need just a little extra boost of adrenaline perhaps, and they gave it to us. I thought it was a great showcase for women’s basketball. That Mississippi State game, I’m telling you, that’s one of the best-played games I’ve certainly ever been a part of and one of the best tournament games I’ve seen. But, yeah, I thought it was great. There were times literally when sound had feel. If you’ve been in some of those venues, you felt that, you know what I’m talking about. That definitely happened that day.

LH : Was there a time during the season where you thought to yourself you may be good enough to get to Tampa and compete for the national championship?

KM : I can’t tell you just one moment in time. I just watched our team from the loss at Stanford when we returned in January and we started playing in conference and we played Connecticut after Christmas that, you know, we knew we were pretty good. We knew that there was a lot of parity this year in women’s basketball. We thought we had the talent. What we didn’t know is the next two or three months could we stay away from injuries, which has been a key problem for us the last several years late in the year, and how good are we. I couldn’t tell you that until we really got into conference and just watched us play in the Big 12 and see the different coaches throw different things at us, how we handle ourselves.

You’ve come into the Women’s Final Four as the hunter and not the hunted. Does it help knowing you came in before as the team to beat?

KM : I’m not sure we’re the team to beat. I don’t think we’ve been picked to win it. I know we’re the No. 1 overall seed, but I’m not sure we’re the hunted. I think we’re one of four teams that can win it all. We happen to be the overall No. 1 seed probably because of the timing of how losses happened late in the year. But we’re just happy to get there, to bring players who have never been there, and realize Oregon is an unbelievably talented team. I don’t know that we’re the hunted or the hunter.

LH : Was there a point during the season, a specific game, where you thought you really may be good enough to get to Tampa and compete for the national championship?
MM : Honestly, we won a tournament in Vancouver over Thanksgiving, played three ranked teams, played very well. I thought at that point when we get healthy, because Marina Mabrey was just coming back, I knew we had a good team, a lot of talent coming back, certainly had a big target on our back for being defending champ. But I think it was evident pretty early on that we had the talent to get here.

LH : Your guards are basically the heart and soul of your team. They like to play at a frenetic pace. You want an up-tempo game, don’t you?

MM : I do.

SEMIFINALS

OREGON POSTGAME

LH : Erin, then the rest of the players, did Baylor’s size just wear you down over the course of the game?

ERIN BOLEY : Obviously they have two great post players. I think we worked hard throughout the course of the game. We did what we could on both ends of the floor.

SABRINA IONESCU : No, I mean, they have two of the best post players, obviously very tall, very athletic. They were beasts inside. But we had to adjust and we didn’t.

SATOU SABALLY : I wouldn’t say they wore us down. Obviously they did a good job, yeah.

LH : Was the game plan to trade their twos for your threes or is that just how it worked out?

KELLY GRAVES : To some degree. You saw, we actually tried to make some baskets around the basket. It didn’t go so well. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t get Ruthy involved as much as we wanted to. That hurt us.  32 three-pointers is too many for us. We’re more comfortable in the 25 to 28 range. I just thought we shot a few too many, a couple not so good ones. But that’s what they were giving us tonight. If we have a normal shooting night, those threes for twos are more successful.  But I don’t think that’s where the game was lost. I thought we had a couple of defensive breakdowns late. Even though the boards were relatively within reason, they made some key offensive rebounds late.

Q. In Portland you said the atmosphere was electric.  How much is this going to help you recruiting down the road?

KELLY GRAVES: I don’t know. Do you have any leads (smiling)?  Hey, listen, yeah, I think it will. I think it will. My staff continues to work really hard. I think we’ve proven that this is a program that’s on the rise. We’ll have some staying power with everything that we’re given, the resources we have at the University of Oregon. The administration and support we get, the support we get from our community. We still have really, really good players on our team. We’ve got really, really good players that are coming.  No, we’re not going anywhere. This is a program that is going to be around. Hey, listen, now we don’t have to say ‘next year.’ This is the first time we’re here. If we can get here again or sometime soon, now we’ll have a little bit of experience and that always helps.

BAYLOR POSTGAME

LH : DiDi, then the rest of the players on the panel, did Oregon come as advertised?

DIDI RICHARDS : They did come as advertised. I think they’re a real hard team to guard. We stuck to our defense and came out with the win.

LAUREN COX : Like DiDi said, they’re tough. They’re always moving, always setting screens, driving, kicking it out, hitting threes. Like she said, we stuck to our defensive principles and pulled it out.

KALANI BROWN : Like Lauren said, it was pretty hard. You had to keep your head on a swivel. Towards the second half, I thought we had a better defensive quarter.

CHLOE JACKSON : Absolutely. They were a great team. Can shoot lights out.

LH : You got outscored 36 to zero from the three-point line and won. Has that ever happened before?
KIM MULKEY: I don’t know. We don’t play that style of ball.

LH : This was an example of old school pounding-it-inside basketball, wasn’t it?
KIM MULKEY: I think that style that they play is very good for their personnel. They don’t have 6’7″ and 6’5″ in the paint. I cannot imagine if they did that they would be shooting that many threes.  You change and you run offenses based on what your kids are capable of doing. I’ve been very blessed at Baylor to have Griner and the Destiny Williams.  The list goes on. I think that’s why we get post players, is because people whose daughters are big, they don’t want to sit there and rebound and kick a ball out to three-point shooters all night, set screens for three-point shooters all night. I think with the post players, they involve our perimeter players. We don’t have to shoot a lot of threes.  DiDi will cut off our post being double-teamed. Juicy can shoot the three. I have a couple of three-point shooters on that bench. Their day’s coming, that freshmen class ranked so high.  I just believe the sign of a good coach is you got to figure out what your personnel is capable of doing. That’s what we’re going to do.

CONNECTICUT POSTGAME

LH : Katie Lou,then the rest of the players, you were up nine in the fourth quarter. Did you feel you had the game in control then?

KATIE LOU SAMUELSON : I mean, yeah, we felt confident, as we should be, in ourselves. We knew that they make big plays. When it came down to it, we didn’t get the stops we needed.

NAPHEESA COLLIER : Yeah, being up nine in the fourth quarter is a good position to be in. We did feel confident in that moment. Then after that, we weren’t making, as Katie Lou said, the points we needed to and maintain the lead and extend the lead.

CHRISTYN WILLIAMS : Like they said, we felt confident, but they made some big plays at the end. Unfortunately we weren’t making the shots we needed to make.

Q. Two of your players go 40 minutes, one 39, one 38. Did you feel fatigue was an issue in the fourth quarter?

I don’t think a lot of their guys sat on the bench either. So this was a game where those last five minutes, somebody was going to make plays and somebody was going to win. It happened to be them.  I don’t know that there’s anything that we could say we’re going to kick ourselves because we should have done this. The shots we got were pretty much the shots we wanted to get. When was the last time you saw Lou miss a wide-open layup in the lane? Or Napheesa air ball a seven-footer? Probably hasn’t done that in four years.  We got the shots that we wanted. But, again, against a team like Notre Dame, you only get so many chances and you need to capitalize at every one of your chances. When we played them at their place, we did. When we played them here tonight, we didn’t.  The first half, you can’t defend them any better than we defended them that first half. They probably went in the locker room saying, We played lousy and we’re down one. We went in the locker room saying, We played lousy, but we’re still up one.  That should have been a 15-point game at halftime.

LH : Did you play a little more zone than normal?

GENO AURIEMMA : No. We were going to play a variety of defenses. I thought there was a long stretch where zone was our best defense.

NOTRE DAME POSTGAME

LH : Jessica, then the rest of the players on the panel, you come out of the timeout and go down nine, it doesn’t look like anybody is panicking.  It looked like we’re ok and we’ve been there and we got this.  Was that correct?

JESSICA SHEPARD : I think for us as players, that was definitely the feeling. We had coach a little bit stressed (smiling). I think we knew that as long as we kept our composure, we just needed to get stops, we needed to get good offensive shots. I think Bri came up huge in the fourth quarter.

ARIKE OGUNBOWALE : I agree exactly what Jess said.

BRIANNA TURNER: I think the maturity of this team, being mostly upperclassmen playing tonight, just making sure we’re staying relaxed, not getting too anxious. We knew against, like last week, coming out versus Stanford, coming out we were down, able to come back. Coach jokes we’re a second half team. We knew we had to come back, whatever it took, no matter how many points it took.

LH : You go down 62-55 with 8:35 left in the game.  Did you take the timeout because you thought it was slipping away or did you just want to stop Connecticut’s momentum?

MUFFET McGRAW : I think that was where we were in the wrong defense, so we felt like we really needed to talk about it again, to talk about what we were supposed to be in man-to-man, we needed to find Katie Lou, just to kind of reaffirm what we were talking about at the start of the fourth quarter timeout.

LH : We’re both from the Philadelphia area and there is a term called the Philly guard and we both know what that means.  Your gaurds epitomize that, don’t they?

MUFFET McGRAW : Marina Mabrey for sure. She comes by it very naturally. She is so feisty and so competitive, just never, ever quits. She missed a lot of shots in the first half. She was fearless in the second half. Feisty on defense. She’s the one in the huddle that’s really getting everybody going.

FINALS

LH : It looked like it was a war out there. The referees let you play tonight, didn’t they?

BRIANNA TURNER : Definitely. We knew coming in it was going to be a physical game. Baylor comes from the Big 12. A lot of big players. So we knew coming in, it was going to be a fight the whole way through.

ARIKE OGUNBOWALE : They were really physical and their posts played strong. Their guards were strong. We knew it was going to be tough.

LH : Baylor’s guards take 42 of their 73 shots. You would think that would have been an advantage to you, correct? 

MUFFET McGRAW : Yeah, I mean, Jackson was having a day. We were actually trying to guard her. She just got a lot of really good shots, shot over us, went by us, scored in pretty much any way. Really, really stepped up in the big moment.

LH : You’re a fourth quarter team. Is that because of the mental and physical conditioning you have?

MUFFET McGRAW: I think we’re in pretty good shape. I think mentally they definitely have a higher gear that they can get to. We didn’t quite get there on defense tonight. I thought we got there on offense.

Q. DiDi, and then the rest of the players, Notre Dame has been a fourth quarter team. You didn’t expect them to just fold the tent and go home, did you?

DIDI RICHARDS: No, we didn’t. We knew they was holding something in their bag. We kind of knew they was going to come the way they came in the fourth quarter.

KALANI BROWN: Yeah, they got hot that fourth quarter. With everything going on, it’s easy to get rattled and fall apart, but we didn’t. We just had to hold it together.

CHLOE JACKSON: We know they don’t start the game out very well. We knew eventually they were going to definitely start hitting shots. Yeah, just attacking us. They did just that.

LH : To be the champ, you got to beat the champ. No one is going to accuse you of backing into this, are they?

KIM MULKEY: I hope not. A lot of people thought we had the easiest region to get here. When you’re the overall No. 1 overall seed, you should have the easiest region. We weren’t playing in our backyard. We had to go East Coast time, play in Greensboro. We got home 1:30 in the morning. We had to leave at 5 p.m. the same day.  We’re moving on fumes. But it’s a great kind of tired. Guys, that wasn’t a fluke out there. So don’t sit here and write, Baylor lucked up and won on some miraculous shot, they played over their head. If you look at the stats, hell, we shot 60 something percent and 50 something percent in the first half. Cox goes down, we still keep it up there pretty high.  That’s against just a very good team that played a lot of zone that I don’t think people thought we could attack a zone because we don’t shoot enough threes.  Well, the old school won a national championship. Whatever that means, I don’t know what ‘old school’ means, I just know how to win. Do what your personnel is capable of doing.