Updated April 2, 2020 - 4:45 pm
Aces forward A’ja Wilson concedes that she’s a little biased toward her alma mater, South Carolina.
OK, maybe more than a little.
“I’m super biased, and I don’t care,” Wilson said with a laugh. “I think South Carolina missed out (this year) on winning a national championship. They were on the right path to win it. … Being a spectator and being an alum, it was just clicking at the right time.”
The women’s Final Four was supposed to begin Friday at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, and South Carolina was among the prime national title contenders — finishing the season 32-1 with the top ranking in The Associated Press poll. Other top contenders such as Oregon, Baylor and Maryland also missed out on a chance to cut down the nets.
“It’s so heartbreaking for them, because the experience you have is life changing,” said Aces guard and former Washington star Kelsey Plum. “The best players always play their best on the biggest stage. Obviously it’s out of our control, but for people, especially seniors, to lose that, we’ll never know.”
Wilson, Plum and five other Aces played in Final Fours, combining for 14 appearances and two national championships.
They reminisced about their journeys toward the pinnacle of college basketball and shared their favorite memories.
College: South Carolina
Final Four appearances: 2015, 2017
Performance: Wilson guided her hometown Gamecocks to their first Final Four in 2015. She then led the school to its first national championship in 2017 with a 67-55 victory over Mississippi State, posting 23 points and 10 rebounds.
She averaged 18.7 points and 12.7 rebounds in three Final Four games.
In her own words: It’s something that I really never stop thinking of. There are times when you go to the regionals and you go to other places and you have the banners of everybody that’s won. You see Baylor. You see UConn, of course. You see Tennessee. I would always say, “I want to put a South Carolina banner up there.
To have that opportunity my senior year to go back to (the NCAA Tournament) and to look up and see our banner from 2017, it was just a feeling like “Wow.” It’s a dream come true. It really is. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, like “Wow.” … I take it with a lot of pride.
Final Four appearances: 2016
Performance: Washington was a No. 7 seed in its region, but knocked off No. 2 Maryland, No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4 Stanford to reach the school’s first Final Four. She averaged 26.3 points and 7.3 assists in four region games. But exhaustion caught up with the Huskies in the Final Four, and they lost to Syracuse 80-59. Plum scored 17 points.
In her own words: To be able to do that, super emotional. I think our whole team was on cloud nine. It was such a team effort. Everyone was playing their best basketball at the same time. It was so special. It’s something that the university will never forget, especially because it was the first time to do it, and how unexpected it was, that’s what made it so cool.
Winning is fun. I’ve really learned that. You know that, but to able to see what winning brings you, it’s like a different type of feeling and reward. I think now, as a pro, winning the playoff game like that first playoff game, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have it.’ Now, that’s what I look forward to most.
College: Notre Dame
Final Four appearances: 2018, 2019
Performance: Young played in two of the most iconic games in college basketball history in 2018, a 91-89 overtime victory over Connecticut in the national semifinals and a 61-58 victory over Mississippi State in the national championship game. Both games were capped by buzzer-beating jumpers by Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale, but Young starred against the Huskies with a game-high 32 points with 11 rebounds.
The Irish lost to Baylor 82-81 in the national title game in 2019. She averaged 13.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in four Final Four games.
In her own words: It’s crazy. It was great for women’s basketball. Putting us on the map. Two finishes like that in 2018, those crazy games usually don’t end like that. … People are still talking about that today. Our game against UConn was on (TV) probably like a week or so ago. It was fun to see everybody talking about it. Just rewatching it, it gives me chills all over again.
It’s something that will definitely live on for a long time.
College: Notre Dame
Final Four appearances: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
Performance: The Irish won the national championship in 2001, but didn’t return to the Final Four until McBride’s freshman year of 2010-11. She didn’t play in the Final Four that season, but played the following three years — reaching national championship games in 2012 and 2014. Notre Dame was undefeated in 2014, but star forward Natalie Achonwa injured her knee in the Elite Eight and the Irish lost to Connecticut 79-58 in the national final.
McBride averaged 16.8 points in five Final Four games and scored 21 against the Huskies in her finale.
In her own words: After that first one my freshman year, that’s when expectations really changed. It was Final Four or nothing. … We wanted to make sure this program was built on winning and not just football or anything like that. We wanted it to be something that we got to kind of build together and that teams that came after us had to uphold as well.
To be one of the first groups to go to four straight Final Fours in program history, it was crazy. It was something that I’ll never forget. Even in my pro career, coming off a season like that, it’s something that keeps driving you. Keeps motivating you, knowing that you’ve been a winner. You want to remain that.
Final Four appearances: 2009
Performance: In her senior season, McCoughtry powered the third-seeded Cardinals to their first Final Four, leading them in scoring in all six NCAA Tournament games.
She had 18 points and 11 rebounds in a 61-59 semifinal victory over Oklahoma, then scored 23 points in a 76-54 loss to Connecticut in the national title game.
In her own words: My team was always different. It never had high school All-Americans. We didn’t have top prospects. … Even me, when I got recruited. I wasn’t in the McDonald’s All-American game. I wasn’t in the top 10, top 20. I was probably like 90-something. … We took an average team, worked our butts off and believed in ourselves. … It really impacted the history of the school, and now, women’s basketball is breaking so many barriers at Louisville.
Final Four appearances: 2009, 2010
Performance: Robinson helped the Sooners reach their second Final Four in 2009 and first since 2002. They lost to Louisville 61-59 in the semifinals — she had six points and 10 assists — but returned the following season, losing to Stanford 73-66 in the semifinals. Robinson had 23 points and six assists for the Sooners, who haven’t returned to the Final Four since.
In her own words: It was cool to be that team that got the school back to the Final Four. The Final Four is super special because it’s more than just the games. It’s interaction with the fans. It’s being in a city and having people recognize you.
In 1999, I watched Purdue win (the national championship) in San Jose where I’m from. … You get there, and you’re like “Wow, I’ve seen this when I was young. And now I’m here.” That was the coolest thing for me.
College: Notre Dame
Final Four appearances: 2014, 2015
Performance: Allen started as a freshman alongside McBride and helped the Irish reach the national championship game in 2014. Notre Dame returned during Allen’s sophomore season, falling to Connecticut 63-53 in the title game. She played all 40 minutes and had eight points and seven assists.
Allen, a pass-first point guard, averaged 3.0 points and 5.3 assists in four Final Four games.
In her own words: I definitely didn’t want to be part of the team that didn’t make it to the Final Four consecutively. I think that was a lot of pressure, but coming to a program (like Notre Dame), you have upperclassmen that lead the way for you. You just kind of fall in line and do what needs to be done to compete for a national championship.
Part of it is just we expected to be there, but part of it is like, “OK, only four teams make it here.” You want to be grateful for it, but at the same time, you don’t want to get too caught up in everything that’s going on.