Women's Final Four Reset: A wide open field marks this year's tourney
Connecticut (33-4, 14-2 Big East)
UConn has played its best basketball of the season over the past two weeks, winning each of its four tournament games by an average of 39.2 points, including rolling Kentucky by 30 in the Bridgeport Regional finals. What's most impressive has been UConn's defense: Connecticut held Kentucky to 30.6 percent shooting from the field (19-of-62) and limited Maryland to 31 percent shooting. The Huskies also outrebounded the Terps by five, only the second time in 34 games that Maryland (ranked second in the nation in rebounding margin) had been outrebounded. This is the sixth-straight national semifinal for UConn -- a record in women's basketball -- and with high expectations comes a sense of normalcy: UConn's players won't be intimidated by the moment.
Few UConn players have arrived in Storrs with more fanfare than Breanna Stewart, a 6-4 freshman forward-center who was the unanimous high school of player of the year in 2012. Given her international experience and all-court game, Auriemma expected immediate impact from Stewart but she struggled early in the season and was particularly absent in conference losses to Notre Dame. But Stewart has found her game in March. She's averaged 17.2 points on 56.6 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 30.3 minutes in six postseason games and her inside-outside game makes her exceedingly difficult to defend. Stewart gives UConn a second post scorer along with third-team All-America junior center Stefanie Dolson, and becomes an even more important factor in New Orleans given Dolson has a stress fracture in her right ankle and an injured left foot.
UConn has lost seven of its last eight games to Notre Dame, including all three games this season and the last two national semifinal games.
"I don't know what it means [six straight Final Fours]. "We live in a world that this is what we are supposed to do. We lived up to our obligation." --
Notre Dame (35-1, 16-0 Big East)
This is the hottest team in the country. The Irish are currently riding a school record 31-game winning streak and will be the favorite heading into New Orleans. Prior to its 11-point win over Duke in the Norfolk Regional final -- a game they trailed by six at the half -- Notre Dame has obliterated its tournament opponents by an average of 26.7 points. Guard play continues to be the team's strength behind first-team All-America senior point guard Skylar Diggins (24 points against Duke), junior shooting guard Kayla McBride (15.9 points), and Jewell Lloyd, the Big East freshman of the year. Notre Dame is shooting an impressive 79.7 percent (644-808) from the free throw line this season, which could be a huge advantage late in games.
As good as Notre Dame's guard play has been this season, they must get significant production out of junior forward Natalie Achonwa to win a title. The junior is Notre Dame's only premier post player and has been foul-plagued in the last two UConn games; she played just 14 minutes against UConn on March 12, though did have a key basket late. Notre Dame is tough when the 6-3 Achonwa is impactful. She has a school record 19 double-doubles this year -- including 17 points and 13 rebounds against Duke.
Notre Dame has forced opponents into an average of nearly 20 turnovers per night in the 30 games since its only loss of the season (Dec. 5 vs. against Baylor)
"This really puts us in elite company. I think it's a phenomenal accomplishment for this group. The junior class knows nothing else, but going to the Final Four. It's an amazing accomplishment. I don't know if people realize how hard it is to get back every year. We worked so hard all year long to get to this moment." --
California (32-3, 17-1 Pac-12)
Tabbed by Barack Obama to make it through the Spokane Regional, Cal gutted out wins over LSU and Georgia to become the first West Coast team other than Stanford to reach the Final Four since Long Beach State in 1988. The Bears have balanced scoring (four players average over 9.1 points) and they beat teams on the boards (a +11.3 rebounding margin) thanks to solid transition defense.
Junior forward Gennifer Brandon failed to score (she was 0-7 from the field) against Georgia, a stunning line for a player who averages a double-double (12.3 points and 11.2 rebounds) and had put up 17 points and 13 rebounds against LSU. You can't win a semifinal game without an inside presence and the 6-2 Brandon must show up against Louisville.
Cal has significant issues at the foul line. The Bears are shooting 61.4 percent from the line this season (502-818) which portends poorly for pulling out a game late against a Top 10 opponent. Cal did convert 26 of 41 shots against Georgia, which was higher than their season average.
"I knew this was possible. I believed more in this group than anyone ever and this is still better than my wildest dreams," --
Louisville (28-8, 11-5 Big East)
The Cardinal proved its win over mighty Baylor was no one-game fluke. They became only the second No. 5 seed to reach the national semifinals after a convincing eight-point win over Tennessee. Junior point guard Shoni Schimmel has been sensational in the tournament. A flashy passer with an improving shooting touch, Schimmel has scored 20 or more points three times in the tournament. Louisville's defense is rightly praised -- they played a "claw and one" against Baylor, according to coach Jeff Walz -- but they've now put up back-to-back 80-point games in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. They are also playing with a chip on their shoulder, continuing to drum the narrative that nobody wants them to win.
Senior forward Monique Reid, the team best post scorer (9.6 points), has battled through knee injuries for two season. She received a medical redshirt for the 2011-12 season after a suffering a osteochondral injury to her left knee just eight games into the season. This year, the 6-1 forward was forced to miss eight games because of chronic pain. Reid led the Cardinals in scoring and rebounding in her sophomore and junior years and has been a first team All-Big East selection. She's been limited to 18.4 minutes a game in 2012-13 but she's a gifted offensive player who can impact a game.
This is a very resilient team. Two starters missed the entire season, a third nearly the whole season, and Reid missed eight games this season because of chronic knee problems.
"We're the ugly ducklings that ruined the party. And that's what we love. Nobody gave us a chance in either of these two games. And we've shocked everybody. Everybody talked about our defense, we just hung 82 on a great Baylor team, then somehow figured out a way to score 85 tonight. We haven't scored like that in about three months. I don't know where or how we were able to start making shots like this, but we did. It is a journey and we are going to continue it." --