For the first time since 2008, the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Elite Eight consisted entirely of 1 and 2 seeds. And for the first time since 1989, all four of the top seeds advanced to the Final Four. While all the chalk on the women’s bracket is a disappointment to those who were hoping a mid-major such as Delaware, Gonzaga, or Green Bay would challenge the traditional powers, this year’s Final Four may be unparalleled in terms of the quality of the teams and the collection of talent on the floor.
Three of the five finalists for the women’s Wooden Award—Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike, and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins—will be playing tomorrow in Denver. Griner, Ogwumike, Diggins, and the many other stars who will be competing for a national championship—including Connecticut’s Tiffany Hayes, Baylor’s Odyssey Sims, Notre Dame’s Devereaux Peters, and Ogwumike’s sister Chiney—are coached by a quartet of coaches who have combined for 11 NCAA titles. (Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma has 7; Stanford’s Tara Vanderveer has 2; Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey have one each.)
After two rounds full of mismatches and blowouts, tomorrow’s games should provide a good deal more drama than last weekend’s offerings. Here’s a look at the two Final Four games.
Sunday April 1—Denver, Colorado
#1 Notre Dame (34-3) vs. #1 Connecticut (33-4)
5:30 p.m. CST, ESPN/ESPN3
The Big East regular-season champion Irish meet the Big East Tournament champion Huskies.
Tomorrow’s game will be the fourth between Notre Dame and Connecticut this season. Notre Dame won both regular-season meetings: an overtime win in South Bend in January and a 72-59 win in Hartford in February. Connecticut upset the Irish (if any win by the UConn women can be considered an upset) in the Big East Tourney.
This year’s Connecticut team lacks the star power of the Maya Moore- and Tina Charles-led Huskies teams that won national titles. This team also lacks the depth. Only six Huskies played more than five minutes in UConn’s Elite Eight win over Kentucky. But Connecticut still has plenty of talent. Hayes and freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis lead a balanced scoring attack with five players averaging better than 9 points per game in NCAA Tournament play.
Notre Dame comes to the final four with a group of upperclassmen who fell just short last year. Grad students Peters and Brittany Mallory, senior Natalie Novosel, and junior Diggins hope to return to the championship game and atone for last season’s 76-70 loss to Texas A&M. They’ll get plenty of help from sophomores Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa. Except for a 73-62 win over Cal in the Second Round, the Irish have won all of their NCAA Tournament games by more than 30 points.
#1 Baylor (38-0) vs. #1 Stanford (35-1)
7:30 p.m. CST, ESPN/ESPN3
Baylor is a perfect 38-0. Stanford has won 32 consecutive games. One of those streaks will end tomorrow night.
Many of Baylor’s 38 wins have come against the nation’s best teams: three wins over Texas A&M, two over Tennessee, one each over Connecticut and Notre Dame. But the Bears have yet to play Stanford.
This game not only features the teams with the nation’s two best records, it may also (with apologies to Elena Delle Donne) feature the nation’s two best players. Baylor’s 6’8″ center Brittney Griner could sweep all of the major player-of-the-year awards. If she doesn’t, it will be because Stanford forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who averages 22 points and 11 rebounds, takes one from her. Ogwumike and her sister Chiney, along with 6’3″ Joslyn Tinkle, comprise one of the nation’s best front lines. But Griner has five inches on all three.
Tara Vanderveer, who has led the Stanford Cardinal to five consecutive Final Fours and eight in the past nine years, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of women’s college basketball coaches (along with Pat Summitt, Auriemma, and Cathy Rush). Baylor’s Kim Mulkey can prove that she belongs among the game’s elite coaches (if she hasn’t already) by winning a second national championship on Tuesday night.
Mulkey learned this week that she has Bell’s palsy, a type of facial paralysis. She is being treated with an anti-viral and a steroid and has said that the ailment will not affect how she coaches tomorrow night.