DENVER — For the first time since 1989, all four top seeds reached the NCAA women’s Final Four.
This year’s field of Baylor, Stanford, UConn and Notre Dame is arguably the strongest ever, with all four programs motivated by unfinished business from last season and out to add yet another crown to their crowded trophy case.
“All four of us, I think, pretty much we’re the top four teams in the country all year long. I’m not sure if anybody ever fell to fifth,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think all four teams are probably the most talented teams in the country. So I guess we all achieved our expectations.”
Yet, Baylor, behind 6-foot-8 star Brittney Griner and a lineup loaded at every other position, is a prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night.
To become the first team in NCAA hoops history to win 40 games in a season, the Lady Bears will have to get past Stanford, led by superstar sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike, on Sunday and then either UConn or Notre Dame in the title game.
“Whoever wins this tournament this coming weekend will have earned it, because they’ll have beaten two of the best teams in college basketball in quite some time,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Auriemma, whose Huskies played all three of the other semifinalists this season, said the common thread is a dedication to defense and “people that are OK with the spotlight. They’re OK with the big moment. They’ve had enough failure and enough frustration to kind of harden them and toughen them.”
“I think all the teams have a little bit of a hunger. There is no defending national champion that’s in the field. So I think the same thing is going through everyone’s mind at this point.”
And that is, why not us?
Only one other time, 23 years ago, did all four No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four, which speaks to the parity in women’s basketball.
“I’m kind of glad in a sense because it tells you that women’s basketball is growing,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “It tells you that there’s parity out there. Back in the ‘80s, when I played and brackets were released, you pretty much knew what four teams would be in the Final Four.
“Now, because of teams getting better, you are seeing teams even win national championships that weren’t No. 1 seeds, including our 2005 championship at Baylor. But you’ve had a lot of parity since ‘89 until 2012. And that’s a good thing.”
This year, however, the top four teams have reached Denver, as expected.
All thrived on high expectations, especially Baylor, which never shied away from the championship chatter.
“Not one time this year have we ever felt pressure, we haven’t,” Mulkey insisted. “It’s just a case of we want to win a national championship. And if we lose it, what have we lost? I mean, we have had a great year.
“And so it wasn’t to throw it out there to put pressure on them. These kids, they know they’re good. And it was just a case of we didn’t think we could hide what people’s expectations were of us, and we can’t hide the fact that we’re older now and we have those expectations, too.”
The Lady Bears are much more than just Griner. There’s defensive stopper Jordan Madden, who hounds the opponents’ best player, Destiny Williams, Na Hayden and Odyssey Sims, one of the best point guards in the country.
This field is full of tradition, coaches who are great tacticians and recruiters and all four teams are loaded with talented and athletic players.
“We don’t really get to be an underdog very often, so we’re kind of enjoying it,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.
Asked to name the one thing that concerns her the most about the unbeaten Lady Bears, VanDerveer couldn’t.
“They give you so many puzzles to solve,” she said. “First, you’re not used to playing against 6-foot-8. How do you score? Second would be how do you defend 6-8? And then Baylor is a lot more than just Brittney Griner. They have Odyssey Sims, Na Hayden. They have perimeter shooters, rebounders, they have depth. They have a very experienced coach. So it’s not one thing. It’s probably many things.”
Stanford, like UConn, reached the Final Four for the fifth straight season.
“I think a lot of the reason that we are going is because we play Tennessee and we play Connecticut, and we really try to play as tough a preseason schedule as we can so we know what’s out there and we know what we have to do to be here,” VanDerveer said.
But the Cardinal hasn’t played Baylor in a long time and Stanford’s players haven’t seen the likes of Griner up close. VanDerveer prepared her players for this matchup by having a 6-8 guy practice with them, so “I don’t see it as a disadvantage at all.”
The Big East’s power pair of UConn and Notre Dame are certainly familiar with each other.
This will be their fourth meeting this season and eighth in the last 14 months.
Therefore, Auriemma suggested the game will come down to which team plays better and won’t turn on some strategic surprise.
“I just don’t know that you can hide that much from each other. We’ve seen each other way too much, know too much, have way too much insight into each other,” Auriemma said.
Although Auriemma and McGraw would prefer not to face each other again, they’re both proud the Big East has two finalists.
“You kind of look forward to getting out of conference when you get to the NCAA tournament and seeing some different teams, (but) we’re certainly glad to be playing in the Final Four with such great company as Connecticut,” McGraw said.
Familiarity might breed contempt, but it also makes for great rivalries.
“Does it get to the point where, man, I’d love to see somebody different, yeah, there is a lot of that, too. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t there,” Auriemma said. “I’m sure that people in the game itself of college women’s basketball are going to look up there and see four teams in the Final Four and say, ‘Enough already. Can we get some new faces in there?’
“But right now the four best teams in the game are playing in Denver. That’s what you hope to have.”
Notes: Mulkey said game tapes show two Tennessee players also should have been ejected from their game with the Lady Bears earlier in the week when Griner was ejected for leaving the bench during an altercation on the court. ... Mulkey said Baylor QB Robert Griffin III texted her saying he’ll attend the