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 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.
“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.”
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.
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,” Baylor coach Kim
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.”
The Lady Bears are more than just Griner. Asked to name the one thing that concerns her the most about the unbeaten Lady Bears, Stanford coach Tara 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.”