Previewing the Women's Final Four: Can anyone beat UConn?
NASHVILLE -- Walk the downtown streets of this friendly southern town and eventually the music scene overwhelms you. Storefronts promise honky-tonk action and line dancing at night, you can keep a close watch on that heart of yours at the Johnny Cash Museum on Third Avenue South, and a giant portrait of Reba McEntire greets visitors entering the Country Music Hall of Fame on Fifth Avenue South and Demonbruen Street. Even the bus driver who delivered a group of women's basketball reporters from the airport pointed out that Taylor Swift owns the entire penthouse floor at The Adelicia complex in midtown Nashville.
Ms. Swift, of course, has sung often of heartache (Damn you, Jake Gyllenhaal) and barring an upset of historic proportions, everyone but Connecticut will be singing the blues in Nashville over the next three days. Still, we have been asked to make the case for each of the teams who have earned a Final Four berth and here is the road map to land in Tuesday night's title game at Bridgestone Arena:
Notre Dame (36-0) vs. Maryland (28-6)
Previous meeting: Notre Dame defeated Maryland 87-83 at Maryland on Jan. 27.
The case for Notre Dame: The Irish have had a brilliant season, undefeated in 36 games including the first team in ACC history outside of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle not to lose a conference game in a single season. No team shoots a higher percentage from the field and Notre Dame has two legitimate All-Americas who can take over a game on the offensive end: Jewell Loyd, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, and senior guard Kayla McBride. They also have a pattern of winning.
This is the fourth consecutive year Notre Dame has made the Final Four and the senior class of forwards Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker, and senior guard Kayla McBride are 137-14 (.907) in their careers, topping last year's senior class of Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner (130-20). In terms of this specific matchup, Notre Dame defeated Maryland last January behind Loyd's career-high 31 points and 20 from McBride. It was a strange game in that Notre Dame blew a 41-19 first half lead -- they had an endless amount of easy layups off strong cuts to the basket -- and had to scramble late to win. But it proved once again that Notre Dame can in different ways.
Now's let get to the big story heading in for the Irish: Achonwa is out for the postseason. Near the end of Notre Dame's Elite Eight win over Baylor, the senior center tore her left ACL after receiving an entry pass in the post. You cannot understate the loss.
Achonwa, a legitimate WNBA prospect, is the team's leading rebounder (7.7 a game), No. 3 scorer (14.9 points a game) and the emotional center of the team. The hope is that 6-3 freshman forward Taya Reimer (7.4 points in 18.7 minutes) -- who started three games for Achonwa earlier this year and is one of the first players off the bench -- can give the Irish impactful minutes and that the team will collectively rally around the injury, especially on boards.
"The key to the game for us is rebounding," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "They're a great rebounding team. They've got so much size inside. They're physical. They're skilled. And for us losing our leading rebounder creates a little bit of a problem in that area. If everybody just gets one or two more rebounds, we're trying to make up for what Natalie would have given us."
McGraw said the team had two strong practices prior to arriving in Nashville and it's also worth noting that the coach discussed at the start of the year the impact of losing star point guard Skylar Diggins, stressing repeatedly to her team about the strength of the collective. That mindset will help them with Achonwa's injury.
"We have been talking about how it is not one person's job and Kayla and Jewell do not have to do it all either," said McGraw. "We look at three people coming off the bench -- Madison Cable, Michaela Mabrey and Markisha Wright -- and said if everyone gets one or two more baskets, that's 12 points. Same with rebounds."
Look for Notre Dame to attack Maryland from the outside in given Maryland has no player that can matchup with Loyd, who scored 30 points in the Elite Eight win over Baylor. McBride is one of the most clutch shooters in Irish history. If those two force their offensive will on the game, Notre Dame will win.
The case for Maryland: They come to Nashville as a hot team after knocking off No. 1-seeded Tennessee and No. 2 Louisville. Coach Brenda Frese said the team's practices between the quarterfinal loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament and the start of the NCAAs was where the team found another gear. But let's start with Maryland greatest strength: 6-foot-2 senior forward Alyssa Thomas. The three-time ACC Player of the Year is arguably the nation's best low-post scorer, averaging 19.1 points and 11.0 rebounds including a 33-point, 13-rebound beatdown of Tennessee.
The Terps have great depth and size in the frontcourt with 6-4 senior center Alicia DeVaughn, 6-4 sophomore center Malina Howard and 6-3 freshman center Brionna Jones, and that becomes a bigger strength with Achonwa's absence. "I don't know that you can match up with a Alyssa Thomas with a guard because she's so good around the basket," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "I think her strength is really rebounding. That girl is relentless. She plays so hard, it's really, really hard to guard her because she's so active going after the ball. I think you need somebody strong to try to guard her, and we really did a poor job last time. She's a tough matchup because you've got to be physical and keep her off the glass, and that is not an easy task."
Maryland involves more players today than it did in the team's earlier game against Notre Dame and, most prominently, freshman point guard Lexie Brown has emerged as an offensive force. Brown scored 20 points, including hitting nine of 10 free throws, in the Elite Eight win over Louisville. But she and backcourt mate Laurin Mincy's importance for this game will really come on defense. "Notre Dame doesn't need second chance opportunities," said Frese. "When they get clean looks at the basket, they're able to put it down. So then rebounding really doesn't matter. It really comes down to us defensively having to make them have to take difficult shots."
Frese has the advantage of seeing firsthand what Notre Dame was like without Achonwa given the Notre Dame center played just 21 minutes in the win over Maryland. Though Maryland is young -- they start a freshman point guard and center -- Frese won a title in 2006 and she knows how to navigate players through the tension and time interests of the Final Four. Thomas will get hers, for sure, but if Brown continues her terrific play and a third scorer emerges from Mincy or three-point specialist Katie Rutan, Maryland can advance to the title game.
Notre Dame statitude: The Irish are the best team in the country in field goal percentage (.510) and three-point percentage (.408).
Maryland statitude: The Terps have outrebounded opponents, 1468-1076 this season and its +11.5 rebound margin per game is third-best nationally.
Quotable: "To some extent, I feel like Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss U.S.A. pageant. Everybody's rooting for the other two. Our job is to be able to crash the party." - Frese
Who wins: Notre Dame
Connecticut (38-0) vs. Stanford (33-3)
Previous meeting: UConn defeated Stanford 75-57 at UConn on Nov. 11 in Storrs
The Case For Connecticut: Where should we begin? The Huskies have not lost in 44 games -- the streak dates back to March 23, 2013 -- and no team has finished within 10 points of them this season. Sophomore Breanna Stewart (19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds) is the toughest player to guard in the country, a 6-foot-4 wing killer who can score from anywhere on the court. Two others starters -- center Stefanie Dolson and junior guard/forward Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis -- are surefire WNBA first round picks. Senior guard Bria Hartley (16.3 points) has had an All-America season and sophomore point guard Moriah Jefferson (10.2) was a finalist for the Nancy Liebermann award as the nation's best point guard.
It's the best starting five in the country by a mile and one of the best in women's college basketball history. Then there's this: They've already beaten Stanford by 18 points this season, a game in which Stewart played just 17 minutes and Mosqueda-Lewis only 22 after crashing on her right (shooting) elbow in the second half. So the truth is Stanford has not seen UConn's best. Good luck if that happens on Sunday.
"This year there's been so much hype surrounding the team because of what happened in last year's tournament and also we're undefeated," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "I don't know that we're in the same place because you can't be, but I think this team, for whatever it's worth, is a lot more confident and sure of itself than last year's team. Last year I think we were determined but there was still a little bit of doubt. I get the feeling from this particular team that there isn't any doubt in their mind that we're the best team here. Whether or not that plays out, I don't know. But right now, that's the mindset that I see."
The Case For Stanford: They have arguably the best player in the country outside of Storrs in senior forward Chiney Ogwumike, the only player to rank in the national top 10 in scoring (26.4 points), field-goal percentage (60.4 percent), rebounding (12.1 rebounds), and double-doubles (26). The 6-foot-3 Ogwumike, with a brilliant mid-range game, is nearly impossible to guard without a double team. She put up strong numbers against UConn in the previous game with 16 points and 13 rebounds. But Stanford has arrived in Nashville because the backcourt of junior point guard Amber Orrange and freshman shooting guard Lili Thompson. Orrange averaged 12.3 points and shot 56.8 percent from the field through the first four rounds and was the best player against the Huskies (22 points on 8 of 14 shooting) back in November. Thompson slowed down star guards Maggie Lucas and Diamond DeShields in wins over Penn State and North Carolina, and is shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. Stanford must get a third scoring option against UConn to win and forwards Bonnie Samuelson (14 three-pointers), Mikaela Ruef (7.1 points and 9.4 rebounds) and Taylor Greenfield (5.4 points) are each capable of putting up points.
"The biggest concern if I am playing Connecticut is what the heck to I do with Breanna Stewart?" said ESPN college basketball analyst Kara Lawson. "You can matchup with them in a lot of spots but that is one spot where it really is an issue. But I think Chiney can do something with Stewart. Those two frontcourts matchup really well. So the question becomes can Stanford's backcourt make enough shots and not produce turnovers?"
As a group, the Cardinal won't be intimidated by the setting, having advanced to the Final Four six times in the past seven years. They've also met UConn four times at the Final Four in the past seven years and teams with previous experience against UConn fare better than those that have never played them. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer believes her team is much today than it was back in November. "I think the biggest thing is our freshmen have really developed a lot since then," she said. "We didn't really know who was going to be in our rotation. We were looking at a lot of players at that point and I feel like I understand our personnel a lot better."
UConn statitude: The Huskies are 70-7 in the NCAA Tournament since 2000 including seven national championships.
Stanford statitude: Ogwumike has averaged 24.9 points, 12.6 rebounds and shooting 57.5 percent in 10 games against Top-25 teams.
Quotable: "If we're going to be someone's hors d'oeuvres, we're not going to get swallowed easily." - VanDerveer
Who wins: UConn.