Can anyone deny unbeaten UConn women a repeat?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There is a certain sense of inevitability that follows defending national champion Connecticut to the Women’s Final Four.
When the top-ranked, undefeated and No. 1 overall seed Huskies (38-0) play No. 2 Stanford (33-3) in the nightcap of a national semifinal doubleheader here Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena, they’ll be doing so in a record seventh-straight Final Four appearance.
No. 1 Notre Dame (36-0) plays No. 4 Maryland (28-6) in the first semifinal game that tips at 5:30 p.m. CDT. The national title game is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
For UConn, make the national title game, and it has been a done deal. The Huskies have won all eight national championship games they have played. Another national title will break a tie with Tennessee for most all time.
"The expectation level here is you go to the Final Four and you play for a national championship, and we’re pretty proud of it," said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, whose team is seeking a fifth perfect season at its 15th Final Four appearance.
Every player who has donned a Huskies jersey since the 1988-89 season has played in at least one Final Four.
"The kids know that," Auriemma said. "That’s why they come here. When you have high expectations, you tend to live up to them."
It certainly has been that way this season for UConn, which has run roughshod through the opposition with no team coming within 10 points at the end of any game. That includes a 19-point win at Stanford in November.
"People, players in the tournament, just kind of resent a little bit of the inevitability," Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer said of UConn being a prohibitive favorite to win the national title just about every year.
The Cardinal won national titles in 1990 and ’92 and are playing in their 11th Final Four. From 2008-12, Stanford went to five straight Final Fours, losing in title games to Tennessee in 2008 and UConn in 2010.
"Like why have the tournament, if it’s inevitable?" Vanderveer said. "We definitely want to be party crashers."
There is another feeling of certainty circling Music City as it prepares to host the Women’s Final Four for the first time. And that’s an anticipated championship game Tuesday night between UConn and Notre Dame, the other undefeated team and No. 2 overall seed.
That notion hasn’t been lost on Maryland coach Brenda Frese, who guided the Terrapins to the 2006 national title. Her team had the toughest road to the Final Four, beating No. 1 seed Tennessee in a regional semifinal before beating No. 3 seed Louisville on its home floor to advance.
"For any of the four teams that are left remaining, you have to have that mentality," Frese said of the expectation for winning. "But the expectations are high with Notre Dame and UConn for a reason. They’ve backed it up all season long with their undefeated record."
While Frese said every team is different, she did see some similarity between this year’s team and the one that won it all in 2006.
"The one thing I will say that is similar to 2006 is watching how everyone’s been lined up and committed for one another, our staff and our support staff and just always pulling in the right direction for this team," she said.
Like UConn-Stanford, the Notre Dame-Maryland game is a rematch from earlier in the season. The Irish beat host Maryland 87-83 in late January.
"They’re very dangerous," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Maryland. "I think they’re a great team. They’re a team that has really, really kind of hit their stride lately. I think they’re playing great basketball."
Each Final Four team had a player make first-team All-American: UConn sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride, Stanford senior forward Chiney Ogwumike and Maryland senior forward Alyssa Thomas.
UConn had two players, senior center Stefanie Dolson and senior guard Bria Hartley, named second-team All-American. Notre Dame had sophomore guard Jewell Lloyd make second-team and senior forward Natalie Achonwa named third-team All-American.
"The last 20-some years, we’ve worked just as hard, we do the same thing, we work our butt off, we have high expectations for our players," Auriemma said. "But the players are really, really, really good. I’d like to think that we get some of the best players in America to come to Connecticut.
"And when they get here, I’d like to think that we have them work as hard, if not harder, than any other team in the country year in and year out."
Stanford’s Ogwumike is a finalist to be named Naismith National Player of the Year. She is the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 nationally in scoring (third at 26.4) and rebounding (ninth at 12.4).
Other National Player of the Year finalists to win the award announced here Monday are Stewart, McBride and Baylor senior guard Odyssey Sims.
"She plays on a team that without Chiney we’re maybe, I’m going to say, an average team," Vandeveer said of Ogwumike. "With Chiney, we’re in the Final Four. She is a builder, an encourager, a leader."
Notre Dame will be without one of its stars. During their regional final victory over Baylor, the Irish lost Achonwa for the Final Four to a knee injury.
"Natalie Achonwa sets the tone for our team in everything that we do," McGraw said. "She’s been the vocal leader for our team. "…There were no tears. There was no mourning. We are ready to move on.
"And Natalie is going to be on the sidelines doing everything she can do to help us win."