As Final Four Looms, USA National Team Athletes Reflect Back
It’s been a year of highs and lows, cancelled games, injuries, closed home venues, upsets and last-second buckets for exhilarating victories.
Through it all, four teams emerged in San Antonio to battle it out this weekend for the right to hoist the 2021 NCAA Championship trophy.
Of the four teams remaining in the title hunt, seven members of this week’s USA National Team training camp squad played for either University of Connecticut, University of South Carolina or Stanford University.
Bragging rights on the line for former Huskies Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Stefanie Dolson and Diana Taurasi; Gamecocks Allisha Gray and A’ja Wilson and Cardinal Nneka Ogwumike.
Additionally, 12 of the 16 USA athletes at camp in San Antonio played in at least one NCAA Final Four while in college, with six earning NCAA titles. They know a thing or two about the pressure of playing on the final weekend of any given season.
“There's definitely excitement to reach the final four,” said Charles, who played in the Final Four as a sophomore, junior and senior and won it all twice, including in San Antonio in 2010. “It's a dream come true for any Division I athlete.”
The field of four includes of Arizona in its first trip to the Final Four, third-time participant South Carolina, and Final Four stalwarts Connecticut and Stanford.
Wilson remembers what it was like as a first-time Final Four participant with South Carolina in 2015, the only team that year without a prior NCAA title, and can relate to what the Wildcats may be feeling this year.
“My freshman year, I felt that we were really, really new,” Wilson recalled. “It seemed like everyone knew this secret and we were like, ‘What did we miss out on? What is it?’”
Ogwumike also understands that familiarity on this stage can be a boon to any team.
“The only advice I can give is experience,” said Ogwumike, a four-time Final Four participant. “It's one of those things that you don't know what it is unless you've been there. And so, trying to really lean on that leadership, whether it's the upperclassmen or even just your coaches, and understanding that you can still definitely savor the moment. But there's always a balance of staying focused.”
As with any big games, and something that was on display throughout the NCAA Tournament, runs happen. The momentum pendulum can swing in the opposite direction at any moment, so more advice from USA team members is to never quit.
“Coach Auriemma did a great job of making the practices harder than what the games were going to be,” said Charles. “He put us in positions that he knew that we were going to face. In practice, we were down versus practice guys, and we had to come back and figure our way out of it. So, my senior year, we were down at half against Stanford. But because we did it so many times in practice, we were definitely confident that we could get over that hump and get that game.”
Wilson also faced a series of bumps in the 2017 title game but came out victorious and with NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
“I was just like, ‘we’ve been here before, we know what it feels like to be in those runs.’” Wilson remembered. “Sometimes it may not be going your way, but it’s just a matter of pulling through, and I think it’s the biggest thing that I learned that was so overwhelming – when a team goes on a run, you don’t have time to hold your head down and think about all this other stuff. The next quarter you just have to stay in the moment and do exactly what you need, do the things that got you there. Don’t switch up now, because the big lights are shining. Just stay true to you.”
While she didn’t end up with an NCAA championship, Ogwumike is full of fond memories of her time at Final Fours, including in San Antonio in 2010.
“Honestly, just being a part of the Stanford fam, and being able to engage in the festivities was so great,” said Ogwumike. “I know that that's different now. But in a lot of ways, I feel as though what we experienced in person, a lot of the players may be experiencing on social media now, which is kind of cool. Given the state of the world right now, not everyone can be engaged physically. So, it's nice to see the different ways players are being recognized.”
Ogwumike touched on what be one of the biggest trophies of all taken from this weekend: the experiences gained by each team over the challenging 2020-21 season in getting to this point in time.
USA Basketball wishes nothing but great memories, exciting games and the best of luck to all four teams this weekend.