UConn, Notre Dame win to set up historic championship clash
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For the first time in the history of women's basketball, two unbeaten teams will meet for the national championship. UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0), former roommates in the old Big East, have matched each other from afar for the entire season. Now, they come together on Tuesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) for one of the most anticipated games in the sport's history. Both teams won comfortably on Sunday night -- Notre Dame rolled over Maryland 87-61 while Connecticut broke away in the second half from a gritty Stanford team for a 75-56 victory. Below, we offer 10 observations from the semifinal games:
• This is the 16th time since the 2009-10 season that UConn and Notre Dame have met. Notre Dame has won seven of the last nine games, with three of those games going to overtime. It's also the fourth straight year the two programs are meeting in the Final Four. "It looked to me as the season went on like it was inevitable, you know, like it was supposed to happen," said Auriemma about the title game. "Our sport probably does not have enough significant moments. I don't know that you get the kind of moment that happened at the men's Final Four where you get a No.7 seed and No. 8 seed playing for the national championship. To have the spotlight on Tuesday on two teams, when one of them is going to lose for the first time this year, is remarkable. Think about hard that is to do for one team, much less two."
• Kayla McBride is deadly from the left corner of the floor, especially 19 feet and in. She's also dangerous from just about everywhere else. Notre Dame's All-America senior shooting guard finished with 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting against Maryland and that included at least two jumpers that were down before rimming out. What was remarkable on Sunday was watching McBride attack Maryland from different parts of the floor, be it driving to the rim or stopping, popping and dropping from mid-range when the defense pulled back. What makes her so tough to stop? "Her IQ," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese. "Obviously, she can score the basketball. She gets a clean look, it's going in. But in-game, she knew when A.T. (Alyssa Thomas) had two fouls and she went right at A.T. When another guard got two fouls she went right at that guard. Just watching her in game IQ, I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I saw it in games in terms of she's got a high level in terms of understanding the game."
• UConn's biggest weakness is depth, which is why Auriemma was thrilled by the 22 effective minutes backup center Kiah Stokes delivered on Sunday night. Stokes, a junior, has a basketball body crafted by the Gods -- she's 6-foot-3 with a great wingspan and a lefty -- but she's a wild card for UConn in terms of what she brings each night. Against Stanford, she was great. She dove for loose balls, set picks, pulled down four rebounds, had two assists and scored nine big points. Auriemma said it was the best Stokes had ever played at UConn. Her presence allows Auriemma the flexibility to move sophomore forward Breanna Stewart onto a shooter, a good situation for UConn given Stewart's 6-foot-4 length. "Funny stuff happens at the Final Four, "Auriemma said. "For years you would have had a better chance of finding that missing plane than Kia Stokes diving on a lose ball...She was great tonight, the best game she ever played at Connecticut."
• Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw remains underrated nationally as a coach. After Auriemma, she should be mentioned next in line regarding the nation's top coaches. The current resume: Four consecutive Final Fours, three championship games in four years and just the fifth program ever to make six NCAA Women's Final Fours. McGraw's teams play hard regardless of score and situation, they run their sets with efficiency, and she has a sustained record of excellence (including a 2001 national championship). "They are far and away the best team I have seen this year,"Auriemma said. "No one else is even close that we've played or that I've seen on film. When they run their stuff, they really run it. They execute as well as anyone in the country and they probably attack the basket as well if not better than anyone I've seen."
• Under Auriemma, UConn has always been a team of runs ("spurtability," as Clark Kellogg would say) especially early in the second half. They shot 10-of-26 in the first half against Stanford and were lucky to lead 28-24 at halftime. But after the break, UConn went on a 14-3 run spurred by eight points from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis including a three-pointer that pushed the lead to 44-27 with 14:12 left. McGraw will have to remind her team in the locker room no matter the score to come out with intensity for the second half.
• Notre Dame's players wore navy blue warm-up shirts with Natalie Achonwa's number 11 and the words "ACE" (Achonwa's nickname) written on the back after the honorable mention All-America center tore her right ACL in the Elite Eight game against Baylor. Achonwa stood for much of the game against Maryland and screamed encouragement throughout the first half to her teammates. Notre Dame's players talked on Saturday about how Achonwa has been the emotional, spiritual and oratorical leader of the team this year. After the coaches leave the locker room, it's Achonwa who says the final words. Following the win, fellow Notre Dame All-America Jewell Loyd pushed Achonwa, sitting in a wheelchair, back to the locker room. Nice moment.
• Notre Dame has a deep bench and UConn's regular rotation is capped at six players That's going to create an interesting plot if any of UConn's starters get into foul trouble on Tuesday night. The Irish got 19 points and 14 from junior forward Markisha Wright (12 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes) and junior guard Madison Cable (7 points in 19 minutes including a three-pointer to end the opening half). Freshman forward Taya Reimer, filling for Achonwa, read the cuts in the Princeton offense exceptional well and hit the box score everywhere (nine points, five rebounds and four assists). "She really fits well in the Princeton offense because she can read screens," said McGraw. "She can move about without the ball. She can read the defense. She's strong and physical and fast. I think she showed a lot today coming in as a freshman in this big role and played extremely well."
• Stanford's loss marked the end of the brilliant college career of forward Chiney Ogwumike, who will likely be selected by the Connecticut Sun as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft. Ogwumike is Stanford (and the Pac 12's) all-time leading scorer (2,737 points) and rebounder (1,567) and shot 59 percent from the field for her career. She ended her career with 15 points and 10 rebounds, her 66th career double-double. "I think it's been an amazing run," said Ogwumike. "I'm not even that emotional about it because I was just trying to have fun today, just have fun, enjoy the moment, play hard. That's easy to do when you have a great coach and you have great teammates that support you every possession. No matter the outcome. My experience at Stanford has been a blessing. I've met so many great people. I've been pushed."
• Maryland's Alyssa Thomas, a three-time ACC Player of the Year, ended her career at Maryland as the school's leading all-time scorer (2,356) and rebounder (1,235). She scored in double digits in 124 of 135 career games. Against Notre Dame, she was hindered by early foul trouble and a quick double team on nearly every touch. She finished with a quiet 14 points and six rebounds. Her career will not be defined by one game, even a national semifinal. Thomas leaves College Park as the best player in the history of the program. "She was a dream come true to be able to coach," said Frese.
• You don't often see scalpers flooding the streets of the women's Final Four host city but the action for semifinal tickets was sizzling outside Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. I saw nearly a dozen scalpers looking to broker tickets within two blocks of the arena. The scalpers I spoke said they seats in the lower section for both semifinal games were going for $200, about double the face value. The problem was the inventory was low since the game was sold out and no one was selling. StubHub also had no tickets available as of Sunday night.