TAMPA, FL. — The Women’s Final Four will begin on Friday, April 5 in Tampa, Florida. In the first semifinal game, top overall seed Baylor will take on Oregon at 7 p.m. ET and UConn faces Notre Dame following the conclusion of the first semifinal game.
We breakdown nine storylines for you to follow for the 2019 Women’s Final Four at Amalie Arena. Here’s your guide for what to keep your eye ahead of Friday night’s big games.
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Can Notre Dame relive last year?
It’s hard to forget last year’s Final Four back in Columbus. In case the memory has slipped your mind, Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit back-to-back buzzer-beaters at the Final Four last year, first in the semifinals to beat UConn and then Mississippi State to win the national championship.
Well, that’s going to be hard to beat. So what are the expectations this year?
“Well, I don't think we can really top last year,” Ogunbowale said. “What happened last year was amazing. We're here to win, however we have to do it, whatever fashion, we're just here to win. That's what we're focused on.”
Notre Dame has been once again a strong team this season. The Irish have the best offense in the nation, scoring an average of 89.1points-per-game. A title here in Tampa would make Notre Dame the latest back-to-back champions since UConn took home the championship from 2013-2016.
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Welcome to the Big Dance Oregon
After losing in the Elite Eight the past two seasons, Oregon has finally entered Final Four terrority. The Ducks appearance in Tampa marks the first in program history. It’s also the first time for head coach Kelly Graves.
Leading scorer for the Ducks, Sabrina Ionescu spoke on Thursday about her time at last year’s Final Four. She was in Columbus last year as a nominee for end of the season awards. Ionescu remembers the feeling disappointed not playing, but knowing that her team might have a shot. Well, they finally do.
“We're definitely just enjoying the moment, enjoying the experience and everything that it has to offer,” Ionescu said. “Now it's game time. We're focusing on the game. We're not really going to change who we are. We're going to enjoy and be appreciative of the position we're in.”
Baylor’s posts duo
Baylor’s season has been highlighted by the impressive overall play of Kelani Brown and Lauren Cox. The two are key aspects to Baylor’s high-low game and have put up notable stats all season on both offense and defense. Just how good is the duo? This season they have combined to average 28.4 points, 16.4 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per-game.
Cox has also made a name for herself on defense this season, earning Big 12 defensive player of the year honors and is a nominee for the Naismith defensive player of the year award.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey spoke on Thursday about just how exceptional Cox has been as a defender and argued she is one of the best in the country.
“She can defend any position on the floor if I asked her to,” Mulkey said. “That's what separates her from other people who think their kid is the best defensive player in the country. You may be down the block as a post player, but can you go out there and guard a three player, guard the point guard if I get in trouble with my point guard defender?”
Outside of post play, watch Chloe Jackson for Baylor
Baylor is known for the tall pair of Cox and Brown, but don’t be surprised to notice Chloe Jackson on the court. As a transfer from LSU, Brown will get a final shot at a national title, which she called a dream come true at media day.
“In my opinion, she's one of the best midrange shooters that I've ever coached. I would have to think in the country,” Mulkey said of Jackson. “When Chloe misses a shot, you're surprised. She keeps shooting, and she hits those big shots in the clutch for you. Yes, we certainly are known for our bigs throughout my coaching career at Baylor, but we also have some pretty good darn good perimeter players. We had some outstanding role players.”
Jackson was also key in the Lady Bears’ win over then No. 1 UConn back in January when she posted 11 points, eight assists, seven rebound and four steals.
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Difference of games, difference of heights
Baylor’s height also brings an intriguing matchup when it comes to facing the Ducks. Oregon’s offense is fast and reliant on the three-point ball. At media day on Thursday, Graves even fielded questions about comparing his squad to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
An advantage for the Ducks could be that they have faced impressive post players already this tournament. Ruthy Hebard matched up with Mississippi State’s Tierra McCowan in the Elite Eight round and was fairly successful in guarding such a dominant post player.
“I think Sunday's game got me ready, got me physical, in the mindset,” Hebard said. “I'm excited to take on Kalani tomorrow.”
Graves added that Hebard will have her work cut out for her in having to face Cox or Brown.
“They're tremendous players, All-Americans. She's just going to have to suck it up and do it like she's been doing,” Graves said. “I thought she did a terrific job on Teaira McCowan last week. Kristine Anigwe is in our league, she's had to guard her, too.”
And then there were Four. #WFinalFour pic.twitter.com/PLzTvvCnKV— NCAA WBB (@ncaawbb) April 2, 2019
UConn vs. Notre Dame rivalry, Part 50
Tomorrow night will mark the 50th meeting between UConn and Notre Dame women’s basketball programs. The matchup has certainly been claimed as one of the best rivalries in women’s basketball.
The two teams have met already once this season in South Bend on December 2 when UConn defeated the Irish 89-71.
“I think definitely after that game we really learned how to play with each other,” Ogunbawale said of this season’s loss to the Huskies. “Marina (Mabrey) was injured for most of the games before that, that was our first game as a starting five. Definitely just it's a process to be able to learn how to play with five All Americans.”
Head coach Muffet McGraw said when looking back at this season’s loss to UConn there were many critical points where the Irish need to be solid against the Huskies. McGraw mentioned being able to contain the talented Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield and winning the battle on the boards.
“I think rebounding is always key for us,” McGraw said. “If we can defend and get a rebound, that's going to help our transition game. That's probably maybe the biggest key.
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UConn’s hopes and lasting memories
UConn is making its 12th straight Final Four appearance and 20th overall. The Huskies earned titles from 2013-2016, as well as back-to-back championships in 2009-10.
However, the last two seasons have ended sour for UConn, falling short in the semifinals.
“It is really hard having your season end like that, especially two times in a row. It's kind of like the worst situation that you can have. Overtime, a last shot like that, it happened to us twice. It is really hard,” Collier said. “It's something that our first year we were like, ‘We need to use this, make ourselves better.’ Then we didn't really take that to heart. We said it this year. You could see I think even from the summer, everyone just came in really focused, with a different mentality than we had the year before. Our team dynamic even this year is so much better.”
What the coaches are saying
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey on Sabrina Ionescu:
I will tell you that it all starts with Sabrina. What a talent. What a joy to watch. If you're not having to play against her...The thing that I love more than her talent is I love the way she competes. She's got that umph in her. She makes everybody around her better. She's just a special, special talent.
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw on UConn rivalry:
“I think it's very competitive and intense. I think it is the best rivalry in women's college basketball. I think it's one the fans and teams all look forward to.”
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma on Notre Dame:
“I just think tomorrow's game is a completely different game. I always tell our players whenever we win a big game in December, I say, 'Listen, we're going to have to get a lot better fast.' I'm assuming the teams we play against, they're getting a lot better. And Notre Dame is a lot better today than they were in December, no doubt in my mind. I mean, I think they're the best team in the country. I don't think anybody else is even close. Baylor. But I don't think anybody else, I think, can match Notre Dame when they're playing their A game. They just overwhelm you, man, at every position.”
For many student-athletes on the court tomorrow, this could be their last time suiting up.
UConn’s Collier and Samuelson spoke about Friday’s game potentially being the last time they play collegiate basketball.
“It's kind of unbelievable in some ways because it feels like the UConn jersey is one we've been wearing forever. It seems like while you're playing here, it's never going to end. You always are going to play another game, have another practice,” Samuelson said. “The fact that it is kind of the end of the road, we just want to go out and give everything we have because we know this could be one of the last few chances we get to wear the UConn jersey on our chest.”
Notre Dame also has four seniors on its roster with Mabrey, Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner. Baylor has Jackson and Brown, while Oregon has Maite Cazorla and Oti Gildon.