In women's Final Four, a heated rivalry and two newcomers
NEW ORLEANS -- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has a strategy for keeping things civil with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, a known agitator of opposing coaches. "I don't really read anything that he says," McGraw said. "That helps. I try to stay away from anything controversial, and he would love to try to get some things going."
Auriemma would love to get something going against Notre Dame. His teams have lost seven of the last eight meetings, including the Big East Tournament final on March 12. The schools will meet for the fourth time this season Sunday night, another chapter in the sport's best rivalry thanks to a series of nonstop games over the last 27 months. Since Jan. 8, 2011, UConn and Notre Dame have met 11 times?five times over the last 366 days. The game Sunday marks the first time in NCAA tournament history that two schools will meet in the national semifinals for the third consecutive year. (Sadly, conference realignment means these teams won't meet next year in the regular season.) ESPN wisely opted to put UConn-Notre Dame in the primetime slot (9:00 p.m. ET), but Cal-Louisville (6:30 ET) will be an interesting semifinal as well. Below, SI.com makes the case for each team winning on Sunday:
No team comes to New Orleans with more swag thanks to a resume that includes 30 consecutive wins. The Irish have averaged 82.8 points per game and won by a margin of 23.8 points in the 30 games since their loss to Baylor last December. Notre Dame has owned UConn over the past two seasons thanks to superior late-game execution. They are guard-oriented but very efficient, shooting .455 from the field, the fourth-best mark in the country. The perimeter group is sensational with senior Skylar Diggins (17.3 points in 2012-13), junior Kayla McBride (20.3 points in the tournament) and Jewell Loyd, the National Freshman of the Year. McGraw wants the ball in the hands of Diggins as much as possible because few players draw fouls better, and she's a good free throw shooter.
What else? They've lost two consecutive championship games, which provides easy motivation. "I still feel like Connecticut is America's team and they're going to cheer for them whether we beat them 20 times in a row," said Diggins, playing the us-against-the-world card. "I think we approach this game with the mindset that we can beat them because we have before. At the same time, they're a great team, and we didn't win by 20. The games were decided within the last couple of minutes."
The good news for Auriemma is that forward Breanna Stewart and point guard Moriah Jefferson -- two highly touted freshman -- have found themselves since the start of the Big East Tournament. Stewart is averaging 17.2 points in 30.3 minutes and shooting 56.6 percent since March 10. (In the previous 10 games, she averaged 8.1 points and shot 36.4 percent from the field.) Jefferson had 10 points, three assists and two steals against Maryland, and Terps coach Brenda Frese cited her ball pressure as the reason Maryland could not get anything going.
Keep in mind UConn has led Notre Dame in each of the three games this year with less than a minute to play. "The little things are what seem to kill us in those games," said UConn sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis, who averages 17.7 points and is shooting 53 percent from the field. "There's spurts in the games where we played great and we did everything we were supposed to do. But when it came down to the wire, it just didn't end the way we wanted it to. We're putting ourselves in positions like that in practice and being successful. And if it comes down to that tomorrow, then we'll be ready."
Layshia Clarendon is a sensational player -- she and McBride are the best mid-range shooters in women's college basketball -- and she's been overlooked this season because her team plays on the West Coast. Clarendon isn't a great three-point shooter -- or strong from the foul line -- but she's a crafty scorer who reads the game exceptionally well. "When people ask me what's the difference between us this year and last year, the players that returned were all better, and Layshia has played like an All American," said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. "Is she overlooked because we're on the West Coast and people don't see her as much? I think at times, if she were wearing one of these other uniforms, she would be one of the biggest names in the country. But I think she's quietly and steadily earned that respect from the people who really watch basketball and who really know."
Cal's identity revolves around rebounding and transition defense: The Bears have a rebounding margin of +11.8 (third-best in the country), and they are physical in the post with junior forward Gennifer Brandon (12.3 points and 11.2 rebounds). They also have a star-in-the-making point guard with sophomore Brittany Boyd. Cal has shown resolve all season, including surviving a second-round game against South Florida they probably should have lost. If the Bears can keep this game in the 60s, it favors their style.
If Louisville makes threes at same rate it did over its last two games-- the Cardinals were 24-of-48 against Baylor and Tennessee -- it'll be in Tuesday night's final. Louisville is an underrated offensive team led by junior guard Shoni Schimmel, a fearless shooter who scored 24 points in the upset of Baylor. During the season, Louisville coach Jeff Walz relieved pressure on Schimmel by using sophomore guard Bria Smith to bring the ball up against any press. Louisville can also play a three-point guard set when sophomore Jude Schimmel, Shoni's younger sister, comes in and sends Smith to the small forward position.
Defensively, Walz devises game plans to restrict his opponent's best player from getting the ball. He said the defensive plan is four-fold: 1. Get back in transition; 2. Limit transition baskets; 3. Keep Cal off the boards; 4. Don't allow Cal to have a huge free-throw discrepancy. If you watch Louisville, you'll see players change defenses sometimes within the same plan (zone to man, for example). "They're at their best when they're making you uncomfortable, when they make you off kilter," Gottlieb said. "I think Jeff does a really good job of figuring out what's going to make another team uncomfortable and trying to play to that. We've talked about not being rattled by their changing defenses, not focusing on what they're doing and focusing on the looks we're trying to get and how we're trying to play."