The NCAA women's basketball Final Four is set. Two private schools and two state flagship universities comprise the competing teams. It spotlights two undefeated and top seeded teams, one second seed and a party crashing fourth seed. In one semi-final, the private school Stanford Cardinal will face the state school the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies. The other semi-final features the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the University of Maryland Terrapins. And please give me a moment to say:
A history lesson
Maryland may be a party crasher but they are not the lowest seed to reach the Final Four. That distinction belongs to the University of Arkansas who, as the ninth seed in 1998, lost to eventual champion Tennessee. In fact, should Maryland win their game Sunday, they wouldn't be the lowest seed to reach the championship game. Fifth seeded Louisville lost to UConn in the title game last year. However, if they capture it all, the Terps would be the lowest seeded team to win the championship besting North Carolina and Tennessee who won as three seeds in 1994 and 1997 respectively.
Prior to this season, twelve teams entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated and seven of them have gone on to win the crown. Four of those undefeated seasons belong to UConn - including the astonishing back to back years in 2009 and 2010 - two belong to Tennessee and the last belongs to Texas. Of the five times undefeated squads have lost, only two belong to power schools of their era. Louisiana Tech lost to Auburn in the 1990 national semi-final and Connecticut fell to Tennessee in a regional final in 1997. This year is the first time two undefeated teams have reached the Final Four.
Each of the competing schools have at least one national championship in their history and two have more than one title. Defending champion UConn leads the way with eight. Stanford won titles in 1990 and 1992 while Notre Dame (2001) and Maryland (2006) have each won once.
Stanford Cardinal - The best of the west
Strength of Schedule: 11
Star watch: Chiney Ogwumike, 6'4" Sr Forward; All-American; leads her team in scoring 26.4 points and rebounds 12.1; shoots 60 percent from the floor; she is the all time leading scorer in the Pac-12.
How they reached the Final Four: After their rather shocking loss to USC in the Pac-12 Tournament the Cardinal, like another squad in the Final Four had to regroup and refocus. In their trip to a second showdown against UConn this season, Stanford has taken care of business with wins against teams from Maryland's present and future conferences. After beating South Dakota by 19 at 81-62, Stanford took down Florida State (63-44), Penn State (82-57), and North Carolina (74-65). The last two wins came on their home court. The Cardinal's final exam question is simultaneously simple and challenging: How do you cope with UConn and their three All-Americans?
Connecticut Huskies - The beast of the east
Strength of Schedule: 12
Star Watch: Breanna Stewart, 6'4" So. Forward; 2013 Final Four MOP; All-American; Huskies leading scorer at 19.7 and second leading rebounder at 8.1 per game; shoots nearly 50 percent from the floor including 35 percent from three point range; 3 assists, 3 blocked shots and nearly 2 steals per game.
Star Watch 2: Stephanie Dolson, 6'5" Sr. Center; All-American; scores 12.3 points per game on 56 percent shooting; UConn's leading rebounder at 9.1 per game; adds 3.3 assists, and 2.3 blocks
Star Watch 3: Bria Hartley, 5'8" Sr. Guard; All-American; her 16.3 points per game is second on the team; adds 4.4 assists and nearly 2 steals per game for the nation's best defensive squad.
How they reached the Final Four: UConn's last loss came in the 2013 Big East Tournament championship game. Since then the Huskies have won 44 in a row. They have already beaten both Maryland and Stanford this season. Connecticut's Tournament wins have come over Prairie View A&M (87-44), Saint Joseph's (91-52), BYU (70-51), and Texas A&M (69-54). UConn won the Lincoln regional. The biggest question facing Connecticut is...Wait a minute, there is no big question facing Connecticut.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish - An undefeated underdog?
Strength of Schedule: 4
Star Watch: Kayla McBride, 5'11" Sr. Guard; All-American; Coaches' ACC Player of the Year; second leading scorer 17.2 average; leads team in assists at 4 per game; 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio; shoots 46 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from three point; makes 88.1% of her free throws
Star Watch 2: Jewell Loyd, 5'10" So. Guard; All-American; ND's leading scorer with 18.8 points per game; second leading rebounder at 6.4; adds 2.2 assists and nearly 2 steals per game. She is probably the most athletic player on the team.
How they reached the Final Four: Notre Dame rolled through the ACC regular season and ACC Tournament with only two teams - UVA (79-72) and Maryland (87-83) - coming within ten points of the Irish. In the NCAA Tournament the Fighting Irish have defeated Robert Morris (93-42), Arizona State (84-67), Oklahoma State (89-72), and Baylor (88-69) with the last two wins on their home court. However, with about four minutes to play in the win against Baylor, Notre Dame lost center / forward Natalie Achonwa to an ACL tear. Achonwa was the Irish's leading rebounder and third leading scorer on the season. She had stepped up her game in the NCAA Tournament and averaged 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and was shooting an absurd 71 percent. So the obvious question facing the Irish is: Can they overcome Achonwa's loss?
Maryland Terrapins - An Unexpected visitor
Strength of Schedule: 28
Star Watch: Alyssa Thomas, 6'2" Sr. Forward; All-American; three time ACC Player of the Year; leads Maryland in scoring (19.1), rebounds (11); assists (4.2), and steals (1.6); shoots 51.6 percent from the floor and 79.8 percent from the free throw line.
How they reached the Final Four: After a disappointing loss to North Carolina in their first game in the ACC Tournament, the Terrapins regrouped and plowed their way through the toughest road of any of the four regional winners. Hosting the first two games, Maryland cruised past Army 90-52 in the first round before narrowly defeating a quality Texas Longhorns squad 69-64. The Terps then had to travel to Louisville where they defeated top seeded Tennessee 73-62 before taking down the third seeded Louisville Cardinals 76-73 on their home court. The big final exam question facing the Terps is: Having accompanied their star forward to the Final Four, they can dismiss the feeling of mission accomplished and overcome two more challenges.