Thursday, November 23, 2017

Regular season's best make it to Final Four


DENVER — For the first time since 1989, all four top seeds reached the NCAA women's Final Four.

This field — Baylor, Stanford, Connecticut and Notre Dame — is, arguably, the strongest ever.

"All four of us, I think, pretty much were the top four teams in the country all year," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I'm not sure if anybody ever fell to fifth."

Baylor, behind 6-foot-8 star Brittney Griner and a lineup loaded at every other position, is favored. But to become the first team — men's or women's — to win 40 games in a season, it must get past Stanford, led by star sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike, on Sunday then UConn or Notre Dame on Tuesday.

"Whoever wins this tournament will have earned it because they'll have beaten two of the best teams in college basketball in quite some time," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

Auriemma added the loss by defending champion Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 has only added to the intensity.

"I think all the teams have a little bit of a hunger," he said. "There is no defending national champion in the field, so I think the same thing is going through everyone's mind at this point."

That is: Why not us?

All four thrived on high expectations, especially Baylor.

"Not one time have we felt pressure," coach Kim Mulkey said. "It's just a case of we want to win a national championship. And if we lose it, what have we lost? I mean, we have had a great year.

"These kids, they know they're good. And it was just a case of we didn't think we could hide what people's expectations were of us. And we can't hide the fact that we're older now and we have those expectations, too."

Stanford, like UConn, reached the Final Four for the fifth consecutive season.

"I think a lot of the reason that we are going is because we play Tennessee and we play Connecticut," coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We really try to play as tough a preseason schedule as we can so we know what's out there and we know what we have to do to be here."

But the Cardinal hasn't played Baylor in a long time, and it hasn't seen the likes of Griner up close. VanDerveer prepared her players for the matchup by having a 6-foot-8 man practice with them, so "I don't see it as a disadvantage."

The Big East's power pair of UConn and Notre Dame are certainly familiar with each other.

This will be their fourth meeting this season and eighth over the past 14 months. So, Auriemma said, the game won't turn on a strategic surprise.

"I just don't know that you can hide that much from each other," he said. "We've seen each other way too much, know too much, have way too much insight into each other."

Although Auriemma and McGraw would prefer not to face each other again, they're proud the Big East has two finalists.

"You kind of look forward to getting out of conference when you get to the NCAA Tournament and seeing some different teams," McGraw said. "But we're certainly glad to be playing in the Final Four with such great company as Connecticut."

Wooden Award: Griner, Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Wisconsin-Green Bay's Julie Wojta are the finalist for the player of the year award. The winner is announced April 6

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