UConn and Notre Dame have been on a collision course all season for an unprecedented national championship game. Now the two unbeaten teams are both one victory away from making that happen in the Music City. The Huskies will face Stanford while the Irish play Maryland on Sunday in the Final Four in Nashville. Both games are rematches of early-season contests.
Here are five things to look for in the Final Four:
There is no shortage of star players in the Final Four. Four of the five first-team All-Americas are still playing. Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas has raised her game in the NCAA tournament while Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike has carried the Cardinal. AP Player of the Year Breanna Stewart of UConn had a record tournament as a freshman last season and has helped the Huskies win 44 straight games. Notre Dame may have the best backcourt in the country with Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. Both will be depended on to overcome the loss of senior forward Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional finals against Baylor.
Some of the best coaches in the women’s game will be roaming the sideline: UConn’s Geno Auriemma, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Maryland’s Brenda Frese. Each of the four has won a national championship with Auriemma leading the way with eight. Auriemma and VanDerveer are Hall of Famers, and all four have been honored as AP Coach of the Year. McGraw is this year’s winner.
Reaching the Final Four seems to have become an annual rite for UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford. The Huskies have been to the national semifinals seven straight years while the Irish have made four straight. Stanford had a run of five in a row stopped last season by Georgia, but the Cardinal is back again for the sixth time in seven years. Maryland is the newcomer, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2006 — the year it won the national championship.
Lexie Brown has had an impressive tournament. The Maryland freshman scored 20 points, including hitting nine of 10 free throws, to get the Terps to the Final Four. She earned All-Regional honors. Notre Dame first-year player Taya Reimer has also played well and will likely get more opportunities with Achonwa sidelined. Stanford’s Lili Thompson is the team’s third-leading scorer and is building a reputation as a fierce defender. She shut down Penn State’s Maggie Lucas in the regional semifinals, then went toe-to-toe with Diamond DeShields of North Carolina in the regional final.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
If UConn or Notre Dame does win the title, it will mark the second time that all three NCAA women’s divisions had teams post undefeated records in the same season. Bentley won the Division II title this season and FDU-Florham was the Division III champion. In 1995, Connecticut, North Dakota State and Capital were all unbeaten.