While the NCAA men Final Four teams await their trial by fire set for Saturday, the women are preparing for Sunday games that feature two unbeaten squads, along with two traditional women’s powerhouses.
The first game on Sunday will see unbeaten Connecticut against the Stanford Cardinal while the late game has undefeated Notre Dame against Maryland. UConn took care of 3 seed Texas A&M 69-54 to earn the trip to Nashville while Stanford handled North Carolina 74-65. The two teams played early in the season with UConn winning handily 76-57. The Lady Huskies will be making their 7th trip to the Final Four in a row. They’ll be going for their 9th national title while Stanford has won it all twice.
In 2010, Stanford ended UConn’s 90 game winning streak with a 71-59 victory. Their All-American, Chiney Ogwumike was a freshman on that squad and after suffering some health set-backs during the year, is now fit and in fighting trim. UConn will have all they can handle trying to contain Ogwumike who is expected to be the number one choice in the WNBA draft.
The Lady Irish, on the other hand, were well on their way to a showdown in the finals with UConn when fate dealt them a raw hand. Notre Dame’s star center Natalie Achonwa, went down with a torn ACL late in their win over Baylor and is out for the rest of the tournament. The Terps, making something of a surprise visit to the Final Four, have beaten some top teams to get to where they are and are meshing at the right moment.
Consider that Maryland — which is headed to the Big Ten next season — lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament to North Carolina (more on the Tar Heels later). Then the Terps went to the wire on their home court in the NCAA’s second round against Texas, winning by just five points.
Who was picking the Terps to knock off No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16? About the same number who expected Maryland to beat No. 3 seed Louisville on the Cardinals’ home court in the Elite Eight.
Yet Maryland won both those games, and now will face a Notre Dame squad that is without the player who has led the Irish in rebounding (9.8) and ranked second on the team in scoring (20.5) during the NCAA tournament. Maryland gave the unbeaten Irish their closest game this season: an 87-83 Notre Dame victory on Jan. 27 in College Park, Md.
Strangely enough, after coming through the Louisville Regional as the underdog, the Terps now might find themselves knocked out of that underdog role by Notre Dame because of Achonwa’s injury.
Don’t count Coach Muffet McGraw’s Lady Irish squad out quite yet. If there is one coach in the country that can rally her players to compete at the highest level after a devastating blow like losing a star player, it’s McGraw. She has more than 700 wins in 31 years of coaching (27 at Notre Dame) and has led Notre Dame to 12 straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the aforementioned 4 straight Final Fours.
The championship final may still see two undefeated teams, but without their star center, Notre Dame would be undermanned and outgunned. Anything can happen — just ask Villanova or North Carolina State.