March 31, 2010
A record-breaking team on an unprecedented roll. An impressive freshman with her own remarkable numbers. And that's only half of the women's Final Four.
San Antonio will have a familiar feel with three teams that reached last season's semifinals returning. Leading the way are the dominant Connecticut Huskies, who are two victories away from becoming the first women's team with consecutive undefeated seasons.
The Huskies will have to go through 6-foot-8 freshman phenom Brittney Griner and Baylor to win their seventh national championship. Griner has carried the Lady Bears to the Final Four, already setting the NCAA tournament record for blocks in only four games.
"She's the most unique player in college basketball today," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "There isn't any one thing you can do against Brittney Griner. I need a couple days to think about it. Believe me this is probably one of the hardest things any coach has had to do that has had to play them, plan on how to deal with her. The last part of the season not many have been too successful."
The other game features Stanford against Oklahoma in a meeting of two teams that lost in the national semis last season.
The Cardinal will be making their third consecutive Final Four appearance when they face the Sooners on Sunday. After routing its first three opponents in the tournament, Stanford needed a buzzer-beating layup by Jeanette Pohlen to top Xavier in the Sacramento Regional final on Monday night.
"Someone asked the other day if we needed a close game," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose team is riding a 26-game winning streak since losing to UConn on Dec. 23. "I said no. But now that we have won a close one, this can really help us. This was a battle, a struggle, and our team really stepped and did the things we needed them to do."
Stanford is one game away from a highly anticipated rematch with Connecticut. The Cardinal are the last team to beat UConn, in the 2008 NCAA semifinals in Tampa, Fla. - but lost to the Huskies in last year's semis. They also lost by 12 in Hartford in December.
UConn (37-0) has been dominant since that 2008 loss, winning 76 straight games all by double figures. The Huskies are in search of the school's fourth undefeated season and the sixth in women's basketball history. Connecticut wrapped up a spot in Texas that seemed like a foregone conclusion all season with a 90-50 victory against Florida State on Tuesday night in the Dayton Regional final.
The Huskies cruised through the first four rounds, winning by an average of 47 points.
The last time the Final Four was in San Antonio, UConn won the first of three straight titles in 2002. The Huskies beat Oklahoma that year.
Connecticut has entered the NCAAs unbeaten on four prior occasions. It won the title in 1995, 2002 and last season, and lost to Tennessee in the regional final in '97.
The Sooners are making their second straight trip to the Final Four. Oklahoma fell two points short last season of reaching its second championship game, losing to Louisville in the semifinals.
While the Sooners weren't able to fulfill Courtney Paris' guarantee of a national championship last season, this year's trip to the Final Four was an unexpected surprise.
The Sooners had to replace Paris and her twin sister Ashley. They also lost shooter Whitney Hand to a torn ACL early in the season.
Coach Sherri Coale adapted, going with a more uptempo fast-paced style led by guards Nyeshia Stevenson and Danielle Robinson. The Sooners also got huge contributions from Abi Olajuwon - the daughter of NBA great Hakeem. After backing up Courtney Paris the last few years, Olajuwon lost 30 pounds in the offseason to get more fit and was instrumental in the regional semifinals win over Notre Dame.
The Lady Bears (27-9) advanced to their second Final Four in school history, knocking off Duke in the Memphis Regional final by rallying from an eight-point deficit in the final 5 minutes. The only other time Baylor made it this far was in 2005 when the Lady Bears won the national championship.
Griner, who blocked 14 shots in the second round against Georgetown to set an NCAA tournament single-game record, has 35 through four tournament games. That broke the previous record of 30 by Duke's Alison Bales in 2006.
With Griner in the middle, Baylor has held each of its opponents in the NCAA tournament to under 35 percent shooting.
Only a three-hour bus ride away in Waco, Texas, the Lady Bears are the first team to reach the Final Four in their home state since Missouri State made it to St. Louis in 2001.