NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford and Maryland descending on the Music City for the Final Four, here is a look at what to keep an eye when the games tip off on Sunday evening.
Still perfect: It’s hard not to look ahead and see to what could await on Tuesday if both Connecticut and Notre Dame win on Sunday -- the first NCAA tournament matchup between two schools with unblemished records. The Huskies blazed through their first year in the AAC, while Notre Dame remained perfect through its first year in the ACC. The Irish handed UConn its most recent loss, when both squads were in the Big East and Notre Dame won the conference championship game, a 61-59 victory on March 12, 2013, in Hartford, Conn. The Huskies rebounded from that to win to roll off 44 in a row, all of which have come by double digits. UConn is in its seventh consecutive Final Four, while Notre Dame is in its fourth.Familiarity: Both Final Four games are repeats of matchups from the regular season. In the second game of the season for both teams, Connecticut cruised past Stanford on Nov. 11. Bria Hartley led the Huskies with 20 points, and Stanford’s Amber Orrange led all scorers with 22 -- making for one of just two games all season that All-American Chiney Ogwumike was not the highest scorer for the Cardinal. Ogwumike finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds in a game that had headlines more dominated by an injury for UConn forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, which kept her sidelined for eight games. Neither coach put much stock in the outcome of that game though, as both have seen plenty of growth and change in their own and the opposing teams since then.
“If anybody thinks, well, yeah, we're going to play the same Stanford team that we played in November, they're kidding,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. The familiarity between the two programs goes back further than this past season -- they have face each other in three of the past seven Final Fours as well as the 2010 national championship game.
Notre Dame and Maryland also faced off once in their only season as conference foes, with the Terrapins heading to the Big Ten next year. Irish guard Jewell Loyd set a career high with 31 points as the they held off a Maryland comeback to win 87-83 on the road. Notre Dame bolted out to a 41-19 lead only for Maryland to take a 64-63 advantage with 10 minutes left. Alyssa Thomas contributed 29 points and 12 rebounds in the loss for the Terps.
A big loss: The celebration was more subdued usual when Notre Dame reached the Final Four on Monday, with what appeared to be a severe injury to a significant team leader, senior forward Natalie Achonwa. The next day it was confirmed that her career was done with a torn ACL, making a hit of 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in Notre Dame’s production.
“Natalie Achonwa sets the tone for our team in everything that we do,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “She's been the vocal leader for our team. When she went down on the floor and before she even left for the locker room, she bounced back up and went after the team and really gave them a very spirited talk and encouragement to finish that game. I think she set the tone right then.”
Fellow senior Kayla McBride said while losing a player like Achonwa is a big hit, the cohesiveness and leadership the team has will not allow for lowered confidence heading into the Final Four.
“We know the expectations are still the same, regardless,” McBride said. “I think we’ve come together and we’re stronger than ever.”
Star power: Four of the five AP All-Americans are represented in the Final Four, with each team featuring one. Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike and Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart were both unanimous selections, with Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas also named to the team. The only player on the first team not playing in Nashville is Odyssey Sims, whose Baylor squad was knocked out by Notre Dame in the regional final.
By the numbers:
1 Stanford senior Chiney Ogwumike is the only player in the country to rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring (26.4 ppg), rebounding (12.1 rpg), field-goal percentage (60.4) and double-doubles (26) entering the Final Four.
5 For the fifth time in six Final Four appearances, Notre Dame is playing a conference opponent in the national semifinals. The Fighting Irish played former Big East rival Connecticut in 2001, '11, '12 and '13, going 3-1 in those games. The lone exception came in Notre Dame’s first Final Four appearance in 1997, when it faced Tennessee and fell 80-66.
6 UConn enters the Final Four with an unblemished record for the sixth time in school history. The Huskies have posted four undefeated national championship seasons (1994-95, 2001-02, '08-09 and '09-10).
12 Each of the four head coaches in this year’s Final Four have won at least one NCAA championship. In fact, they have 12 titles between them. UConn’s Geno Auriemma leads with an NCAA record eight trophies (1995, 2000, ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, ‘09, ‘10, ‘13), followed by Stanford’s Tar VanDerveer with two (‘90, ’92). Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw (’01) and Maryland’s Brenda Frese (’06) each have one.
36 Notre Dame’s current school-record winning streak topped 30-game run, and it’s also the longest winning streak by any Fighting Irish team (regardless of sport) since World War II, passing the performance of the 2001 Notre Dame softball team (33) and putting this year’s women’s basketball team nearly on par with Frank Leahy’s legendary Notre Dame football teams from 1946-50 (39-game unbeaten streak -- 37-0-2 record that included three national championships).
66 Maryland senior Alyssa Thomas has posted a school-record 66 double-doubles in her career and is one of only four players in NCAA history with six triple-doubles, her most recent against Florida State on Feb. 20. Thomas, three-time ACC player of the year, lit the Seminoles up for 22 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
• Sunday’s matchup between Stanford and Connecticut will mark the fifth time that the schools will clash at the Final Four. Only UConn and Tennessee have met more times (6).
• Notre Dame, the NCAA leader in scoring offense with 86.8 points per game, has netted at least 80 points in all four NCAA tournament contests this season -- the first time the Irish have accomplished the feat.
• Maryland is one of the most dominant rebounding teams in the country, out-grabbing its opponents 1,468 to 1,076 on the season. The Terrapins rank third nationally with a +11.5 rebounding margin this year.