TAMPA — USF coach Jose Fernandez has a unique perspective on this year's women's Final Four, having faced all four teams this season. The Bulls' biggest win came at Louisville, and USF also took Notre Dame and Cal to overtime before losing. Fernandez took a few minutes Friday to talk from New Orleans about the four teams (Cal being the only one not from the Big East) and the key matchups this weekend:
"I think all four teams are different. Louisville does such a great job in game preparation. They play a three-quarter court/halfcourt trap, they play triangle-and-two, they play box-and-one, they play matchup zone. They do a lot of things defensively to keep you off balance.
"Connecticut has size, speed. They play defense. The biggest surprise at the Final Four is Notre Dame, with the amount of people they lost. They lost Devereaux Peters, they lost Brittany Mallory, they lost Natalie Novosel. Those are big pieces to the team. That shows how impressive Skylar Diggins has made that team around her, with Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, Ariel Braker at the four, and then (Natalie) Achonwa inside. I think they've played very well as a team. Those three games against Connecticut came down to a possession here, a possession there.
"Cal's very intriguing. We were the eighth-place team in the Big East and took them to overtime. You look at strength of schedule, and the Pac-12 is a little different from the Big East. What I was most impressed about was Cal's four and five, how hard they go to the glass and offensive rebounds. I think Connecticut and Notre Dame are good enough to match up with Cal's perimeter guys and maybe that pressure will bother Cal.
"I think the Louisville-Cal game is going to come down to rebounding. If Louisville can keep those guys off the glass, I think (coach) Jeff (Walz) will play some triangle-and-two or box-and-one on (Layshia) Clarendon to keep them off balance. They go as Shoni (Schimmel) goes. If Shoni's playing well offensively, pushing it in transition, it just gives all the kids around her confidence.
"Connecticut and Notre Dame are meeting for the fourth time (this season). Connecticut's probably playing the best … they've played all year. Breanna Stewart is playing pretty well, Moriah Jefferson's getting more minutes. It's going to be a good game.
"McBride has been the X-factor. She's had 21, 26 and 23 the three times they've played Connecticut. For Connecticut to win, Breanna Stewart has to play well, (Stefanie) Dolson can't get in foul trouble. If they can have another one of their perimeter guys have an exceptional game, they can get them.
"To have three Big East teams in the Final Four, it's great. It's unbelievable. I don't think our league gets enough credit. Our league has the highest winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament the last eight years. We're battle-tested. We play 16 games against great competition, against the best."