With March Madness arriving at its ultimate conclusion, SI.com has a full breakdown on the women's national title game.
Notre Dame (35-3)
The Irish are looking to become the first non-UConn program to repeat as champions since Tennessee did so in 2007-08. They boast perhaps the most talented starting five, collectively, in the history of the women’s game. Not only did their four most important starters from last year’s title run return—Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young and Jessica Shepard— but All-American Brianna Turner returned after missing all of last year with an ACL tear.
Notre Dame entered the year with talks of being a Warriors-esque super team but stumbled early in the season, losing games to UConn in December, North Carolina in January and Miami in February. Coach Muffet McGraw has preached the defensive side of the ball as being the key of their success, as scoring points is rarely an issue for the team. In every game, the Irish have the most talent on the floor— their struggles often come from complacency on defense and collaboration on offense.
After their third loss of the year, the Irish seemed to turn a switch and have not lost a game since. They finished the regular season out with a six game win streak, then blew through the ACC tournament and the early goings of the NCAA bracket, before having to sneak past Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 and perform a stunning comeback against UConn in the Final Four.
In an atypical season of parody in the women’s game, the Lady Bears have been the clear leaders throughout the year. Since losing to Stanford in December, Baylor has rattled off 28 straight wins. And with a suffocating defense and an old school offense, they have made blow outs routine. From their Big 12 title win over Iowa State up until their matchup with Oregon in the Final Four on Friday, the Lady Bears had dismantled opponents, with an average margin of 38.2 points.
They were finally tested against the Ducks, but showed grit and resiliency and sneaked by with a narrow 72-67 win. Baylor is lead by their version of the Twin Towers– 6’7” center Kalani Brown and 6’4” forward Lauren Cox. The two interior players are not just dominant physically, but also work well in tandem with one another, relentlessly attacking teams with their high-low game. Cox is the more versatile of the two, and is able to pop out to the high post to score or, more often, drop perfect passes to Brown down low. Brown is arguably the most physically talented player in the country, and when she has positioning and attacks the basket, it is hard for anyone to stop her.
But it is DiDi Richards who has emerged as the heart of the team. The relentless guard provides the Bears with their energy and attitude. A tenacious on ball defender, Richards chased Ducks guard Sabrina Ioenscu all over the court on Friday night, clearly frustrating the All-American throughout the game.
What to watch for
The clash of styles will be fascinating to watch play out. Notre Dame prefers to push the tempo and get out on fast breaks, allowing their three skilled guards to roam in space. Baylor likes to play out of the half court, with a very concerted approach to get the ball into the post and let their two bigs go to work. Each team will attempt to impose its style onto the game. Whichever one succeeds will likely emerge with the win.
Matchup to watch
DiDi Richards guarding Arike Ogunbowale is going to be must see TV. Ogunbowale, of course known worldwide for her two buzzer beaters this weekend last year, is as talented of a scorer in the women’s game as there is. She also is known as a ferocious competitor, and plays with an attitude that at times gets heated. Richards has proven that she enjoys getting under opponents’ skin with her exasperating defense. She has the length that could frustrate Ogunbowale— although when the game gets close and the clock nears zero, it appears that the Notre Dame guard is unflappable. If Richards is able to relegate Ogunbowale into a non-factor in the game— a near impossible ask—then Baylor’s chances to come home with their first title since 2012 will be raised dramatically.
For Notre Dame, Jackie Young can always emerge as a threat to score 30 points on any given night. On just about every other team in the country she would be the offensive focal point. But for the Irish, she has been happy to take a back seat at times, provide crucial buckets here and there, and then, when needed, take over a game on her own. If Richards’ matchup with Ogunbowale goes in Baylor’s favor, it will be Young who will have to shoulder the load.