By Doug Feinberg
KINGSTON, R.I. (AP) — Brittney Griner and Baylor are two wins from a perfect season.
Still, it won’t be easy for the Lady Bears to become the seventh women’s team to go undefeated. They’ll have to get past two other No. 1 seeds at the Final Four in Denver — Stanford and either Notre Dame or Connecticut. It’s the first time since 1989 that all four top seeds reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
No real surprise, though, because the Lady Bears, Cardinal, Irish and Huskies have dominated all year long. They’ve held the top four spots in The Associated Press poll virtually all season and have combined to lose only twice to anyone but themselves.
Even the four No. 2 seeds posed no problem in the regional finals as all four of the top teams won by double digits.
“If you’re a No. 1 seed there’s a reason you’re a No. 1 seed,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “What you have in our situation, you have to beat the best teams in the end of the year because they don’t get beat by the lesser teams.”
The pressure of playing on the national stage in Denver shouldn’t bother any of them. After all, Stanford, Notre Dame and UConn were in the Final Four last season. Baylor was there two years ago.
Stanford and Connecticut have reached five straight Final Fours — matching the Huskies’ mark from 2000-04 and LSU from 2004-08.
Should the Lady Bears win it all, they will become the first men’s or women’s team in NCAA history to finish a season with 40 wins.
“It wasn’t a goal of ours, but now it has to be because these kids want to win a championship,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I don’t know about the history of the game. You have to remember, we really don’t talk about the old days. … I just look at it as another number. I don’t know that the kids look at it any differently. They won’t look at 40 wins, but they sure will remember that national championship.”
Baylor advanced to the national semifinals by easily beating Tennessee 77-58 on Monday night as Griner continued to be the most dominant player in women’s basketball. She had 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks — falling one short of a triple-double.
“It’s not over. We’ve got our next game and it gets tougher as you go. We have to focus and get ready for our next game,” Griner said.
That game will be against Stanford, the only one of the teams left that Baylor hasn’t beaten this season. The Cardinal have won a school-record 32 straight and are trying to end a 20-year championship drought.
Stanford has been led by its own superstar, Nnemkadi Ogwumike. She had 39 points in the regional semifinal win over South Carolina and followed that up with 29 points in the Fresno Regional final against Duke.
“She has put our team on her back almost all year,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Coaching her is something really special. We just want to keep it going. I don’t want any game to be her last game.”
Ogwumike is looking forward to the challenge of playing against Griner and the Lady Bears.
“I’ve never done it so I’m excited,” she said. “I feel like everybody but me has played against her. I’m just really excited. We’re going to Denver, one. It’s more exciting to play her in Denver than in the regular season. I’m really looking forward to this matchup. It’s great to have a challenge like that. I played against her in high school — that’s when I learned to shoot the 3.”
While Stanford and Baylor haven’t played yet this season, Notre Dame and Connecticut are very familiar with each other, having squared off three times. The Irish took the first two meetings to win the Big East regular-season title outright. UConn won the championship game of the conference tournament.
It’s the second straight season that the teams will play in the NCAA semifinals. Notre Dame ended UConn’s run at a third consecutive national title last year before losing to Texas A&M in the title game.
“That’s not right,” Auriemma said of having to face Notre Dame again. “But the Big East is the Big East. We’ve got two of the best teams in the country. They’ve been one of the best teams all year long. They have national championship game experience. That’s going to be as hard to win as any other time we’ve played them. You would love to say you want to see someone different, but the reality is they are really good. They are really, really, really good.”
It’s been a strange season for UConn. Even though his team ran through the early part of the schedule, Auriemma knew it was just a matter of time before the Huskies’ shortcomings were exposed. Losses to Baylor and Notre Dame on the road were understandable, but it wasn’t until the end of February that Connecticut really came to a crossroads.
The Huskies lost to St. John’s on senior night, snapping a 99-game home winning streak. Nine days later, they were beaten by Notre Dame. But those two defeats got the Huskies refocused and they’ve been unstoppable ever since. They cruised to the Big East championship and rolled through their first three NCAA tournament games before pulling away from Kentucky in the Kingston Regional final.
Now, they’re back in the Final Four for the 13th time in the last 18 years.
Notre Dame has played with a purpose all postseason, yearning to get back to the title game and finish what it started last year.
“Absolutely,” Irish guard Natalie Novosel said. “Actually it was on today when we were flipping through channels. It was reminiscent of where we wanted to be. It’s a constant reminder, a motivator. We were determined to get to the Final Four and we did it, and now we want to get to where we were last year.”
The Irish have won all four NCAA tournament games by double figures, including a 44-point rout of St. Bonaventure that matched the 22-year-old record for most lopsided victory in the round of 16. Then they blew out Maryland 80-49 in the Raleigh Regional final.
But to get back to the championship game, Notre Dame will have to figure out a way to stop UConn again.
“To be honest, I think they’re our nemesis,” Novosel said. “It wouldn’t be the Final Four if we didn’t play them.”
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