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Final Four odds, picks, predictions: Baylor edges Houston, Gonzaga runs past UCLA for 2021 title game

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Final Four odds, picks, predictions: Baylor edges Houston, Gonzaga runs past UCLA for 2021 title game

Which Final Four national championship story will come true?  

There are four compelling stories to tell heading into the national semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.   

No. 1 Baylor (26-2) meets No. 2 Houston (28-3) in the first national semifinal at 5:14 p.m. The Bears are making their third Final Four appearance and are looking to make the championship game for the first time since 1948. The Cougars are back in the Final Four for the first time since the 1980s Phi Slama Jama heyday. This matchup of former Southwest Conference rivals should be heated.  

That is the table-setter for second matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga (30-0) and No. 11 UCLA (22-9) in the second semifinal at 8:34 p.m. The Bulldogs are trying to finish off the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76. The Bruins made their run from the First Four and are trying to add a 12th national championship to their collection.  

Which two teams will complete those stories? Sporting News gives its predictions for the national semifinals: 

MORE MARCH MADNESS: Live scores | Updated bracket | TV schedule

Final Four odds 2021

Below are the opening March Madness odds for the Final Four, including point spreads, money lines and over-under totals for every game, according to the FanDuel sportsbook.

Game Spread Moneyline Over/Under
Baylor vs. Houston BAY -5 BAY -215 134
Gonzaga vs. UCLA GON -14 GON -1100 145.5

Final Four picks, predictions 

No. 1 Baylor (-5) vs. No. 2 Houston  

Saturday, 5:14 p.m., CBS  

Baylor is considered the best bet to knock off Gonzaga because of a top-10 scoring offense that averages 83.0 points per game, but they will have to get through a defensive-minded Houston team first. That is a reflection of coaches Scott Drew and Kelvin Sampson.  

The Bears’ strength is a backcourt that features Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell. Baylor is hitting 35.7 percent of its three-point attempts in the tournament, but a hidden key to that success has been role players such as Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Mark Vital and Flo Thamba.  

That eight-man rotation has been effective, and the Bears are good enough to win with their offense or defense.  

Houston’s offense revolved around Quentin Grimes, who has hit 43.6 percent of his 3-point attempts in the tournament. Marcus Sasser is an excellent wing man who averages 13.3 points per game, and Dejon Jarreau and Justin Gorham are key role players. The Cougars are winning with their defense. They have allowed just 55.8 ppg. in the tournament, and that approach will not change against Baylor.  

The key matchup will be Grimes against Mitchell, who is one of the best defensive players in college basketball. Houston must shoot the ball from 3-point range, and Baylor has limited opponents to 26.4 shooting from that range.  

Expect a tight game in the first half, with tough defense on both sides. Baylor, however, is the more consistent offensive team, and they should generate enough transition and second-chance points in the second half to pull away. The Bears will have to knock down free throws late to seal it, and that’s not a guarantee considering they are at 70.2% for the season.  

Baylor, however, pulls through and advances to the national championship game.  

Final score: Baylor 73, Houston 67 

No. 1 Gonzaga (-14) vs. No. 11 UCLA  

Saturday, 8:34 p.m., CBS  

The Bulldogs have defeated their first four tournament opponents by an average of 24 points per game, a dominant run part of a season in which they average 91.6 ppg. Mark Few is on the cusp of getting that elusive national championship, and the offense is impressive.  

Gonzaga will present UCLA’s offense problems, and that starts with center Drew Timme (18.9 ppg.). The Bruins are already at a size advantage, and Timme’s ability to pass through double-teams will make that job that much more difficult. UCLA forward Cody Riley, who fouled out against Michigan, will be on the spot.  

Corey Kispert (19.0 ppg.) and Jalen Suggs (14.0 ppg.) are high-scoring options in the backcourt, and Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard can score double digits on any given night.  

UCLA would have to be perfect on both sides, but coach Mick Cronin deserves credit for instilling belief that led to upsets against No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan in the East Region.  

The Bruins’ offense continues to roll with Johnny Juzang, a Kentucky transfer who averages 22.4 ppg. in the tournament. Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell – a point guard who has stepped up in the tournament – form a talented backcourt.  

The problem is UCLA is subject to scoring droughts, and it cannot afford to have one against Gonzaga’s up-tempo offense. The Bruins are 9-1 when they force 13 turnovers or more, but they might need Gonzaga to commit at least 20 turnovers and have an off-shooting night.  

That is too much to ask. Emotions should be high because of the Pac-12 pride dynamic, but Gonzaga earns that shot at a perfect season in style.  

Final score: Gonzaga 84, UCLA 70  

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ESPN’s Holly Rowe speaks French and English in WNBA Draft interview; Twitter reacts

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ESPN's Holly Rowe speaks French and English in WNBA Draft interview; Twitter reacts

ESPN reporter Holly Rowe received many a “tres bien” from her confrères in media for conducting a bilingual interview with WNBA Draft pick Iliana Rupert, a France international, on Thursday night.

Rupert was chosen 12th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. With the draft being a virtual event for the second year in a row because of COVID-19, Rowe conducted the post-selection interview in an ESPN studio while Rupert was on camera remotely.

MORE: Why Paige Bueckers was ineligible for ’21 WNBA Draft

Rowe began the interview with “Bonsoir,” or “Good evening,” and asked Rupert in French whether she spoke English. Rupert responded in the affirmative and the interview proceeded in English.

“It’s always been one of my dreams and it’s amazing being recognized,” Rupert said. “I’m really happy to [represent] my country and I’m just excited to finally start this journey.”

After two more questions and responses in English, Rowe switched back to French for the interview’s conclusion, telling Rupert “Bienvenue,” or “Welcome,” to the WNBA. She also gave her regards to Rupert’s family.

Rowe’s media colleagues were quick with the compliments.

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‘It shows how exciting we can be!’ – Saka says Arsenal have real chance of winning Europa League after Slavia rout

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'It shows how exciting we can be!' - Saka says Arsenal have real chance of winning Europa League after Slavia rout

Bukayo Saka says Arsenal have a real chance of winning the Europa League after their rout of Slavia Prague, and claims their latest performance “shows everyone how exciting we can be”.

Arsenal bounced back from a disappointing 1-1 draw against Slavia in the first leg of their quarter-final tie at Emirates Stadium by picking up a comprehensive 4-0 victory in the Czech Republic on Thursday night.

Saka was among the scorers as the Gunners booked a last-four clash with Villarreal, and he is confident they can now go all the way in the competition after flexing their attacking muscles at the Sinobo Stadium.

What’s been said?

“It was fantastic from start to finish. We did it for all the fans, they all deserve it for all the support they give us. We are really happy to progress,” the Arsenal winger told BT Sport.

“We showed real character. The first one was disallowed, Emile deserved a goal, we kept going and got the first one again. We pretty much killed the game in the first half.

“In the first leg we played well but weren’t clinical, credit to the manager and coaching staff, the way we set up, pressed, they couldn’t get out.

“It shows everyone how exciting we can be, when we play like this it is so amazing to be involved in. We have a chance of going to the final and winning this competition, it is up to us. We look forward to the next opponent.”

Arsenal put Slavia to the sword

The Gunners went at their Czech opponents right from the first whistle in the second leg clash, and found themselves in front after just 18 minutes when Nicolas Pepe dinked the ball into the net after being teed up by Emile Smith Rowe.

Alexandre Lacazette then doubled the visitors’ account from the penalty spot after Saka was fouled in the box, and the teenager got his goal moments later when he cut in from the right-wing before firing the ball low past the goalkeeper at his near post.

Lacazette added extra gloss to the final scoreline with a trademark finish 13 minutes from time as Arsenal progressed to the semi-finals 5-1 on aggregate.

What’s next?

Arsenal will now turn their attention back to the Premier League, with a home fixture against Fulham scheduled to take place on Sunday.

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What pressure? Arsenal sweeps Slavia Prague aside to set up a reunion with Emery

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What pressure? Arsenal sweeps Slavia Prague aside to set up a reunion with Emery

Slavia Prague 0-4 Arsenal: Match statistics

What was all the fuss about?

It was billed as the game that would define Arsenal’s season, a night that could even shape Mikel Arteta’s future at the club.

The pressure was supposed to be on against Slavia Prague but within 25 superb minutes, the Gunners were in cruise control.

Last week’s 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium had left the Gunners with a very simple equation going into the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal in the Czech capital: score a goal.

Arteta’s side knew failure to find a way through a Slavia side that was unbeaten at home in all competitions this season would send it crashing out of the tournament and leave an already disappointing season in tatters.

Serious questions were being asked of the players after the way in which they threw away a lead in the closing stages of the first leg to hand Prague the advantage going into Thursday night’s return fixture.

But in the space of six scintillating first-half minutes, those questions were answered in emphatic style.

The brilliant Emile Smith Rowe had already had a goal ruled out for the tightest of offside calls before Nicolas Pepe gave the visitors the lead on 18 minutes, thus canceling out Slavia’s away goal.

Alexandre Lacazette then struck from the penalty spot three minutes later to make it 2-0 on the night before Bukayo Saka added a classy third goal – all within 24 minutes of the game getting underway.

It was game, set and match Arsenal before we had even reached the half-hour mark.

Even in his wildest dreams, Arteta would never have imagined such an impressive start from his side, especially with his captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missing due to contracting malaria while away with Gabon on international duty.

This was a major statement from his side and another example of why there is genuine belief within the club that things are heading in the right direction under the Spaniard.

Getty/Goal

The abject performances throughout November and the majority of December may have led to a hugely disappointing Premier League campaign, but the improvement since Christmas has been undeniable.

Since beating Chelsea 3-1 on Boxing Day, Arteta’s side sits fourth in the form table, with only Manchester City, Manchester United and West Ham picking up more points.

And now the Gunners have booked their spot in the Europa League semifinals, where they will meet Unai Emery’s Villarreal.

Clearly, there is still much for Arsenal to improve on and failure to go on and win the Europa League will more than likely leave it facing up to a season without European competition for the first time in 25 years.

For a club of Arsenal’s stature, that is not good enough, but there are still plenty of reasons for optimism and they were all on show as Prague was blown away in its backyard.

Arsenal’s homegrown youngsters have been the catalyst for the improvement since Boxing Day and one again they led the charge – with academy graduates Smith Rowe and Saka proving far too good for the Czech champions.

Immediately after seeing a goal ruled out for offside, Smith Rowe waltzed through the Slavia defense before working the ball to Pepe, who showed wonderful composure to score his fifth Europa League goal of the season.

Saka then took center stage, winning a penalty, which was converted by Lacazette, before scoring the third himself with a fine finish from the edge of the box.

At that point, the game was done and dusted. Arsenal had done its job and it cruised through the remainder of the quarterfinal, with Lacazette putting the gloss on a fabulous night’s work with a fourth goal on 77 minutes.

All eyes now turn to the semifinal against Villarreal and the return of Emery, the man Arteta replaced just over 16 months ago.

Emery led Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 and now he is the man standing in their way of repeating the trick two years later.

A return to the Champions League is now within touching distance for Arsenal. Just three games stand between the Gunners and a seat back at Europe’s top table.

They went to Prague with their season on the line and they return to London with the dream still alive.

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