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Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Which team will rock Music City?

By Charlie Creme
espnW

WHY THEY'LL WIN | GAME BREAKDOWNS | GAME-CHANGERS | PREDICTIONS

Connecticut and Notre Dame have arrived at the Final Four as expected, both unbeaten and primed for an epic championship game that has been the talk of the sport for two months. Stanford and Maryland are trying to make sure that neither the Huskies nor the Irish becomes the eighth women's team to go undefeated.

For the third time in four years the Huskies, Irish and Cardinal are in the Final Four together. In that span, only Connecticut in 2013 came away with the title. With Notre Dame senior leader Natalie Achonwa out of the Final Four with a torn ACL, UConn goes from being the favorite to the big favorite to win its ninth national championship, breaking a tie with Tennessee for the most all-time.

Why they'll win the national title

Maryland (28-6): The Terrapins weren't necessarily expected to reach Nashville, but they are hardly a surprise, either. Still among the top teams in the country all season, Maryland simply flew under the radar in a crowded top of the ACC with Notre Dame and Duke. The Terps failed to beat either one and finished four games out of first place, perhaps pushing the Terps out of the public consciousness. An early 17-point home loss to Connecticut when the Huskies did not have Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a three-game losing streak in the ACC in January and a quarterfinal exit in the ACC tournament didn't help.

In the regionals, Maryland did something twice it hadn't been able to do all season: beat a top-10 team. The Terps rode senior All-American Alyssa Thomas and a defense that was stingy during important stretches, if not entirely locked down, to wins over Tennessee and Louisville. Now, the formula must remain the same as potentially a pair of top-five teams await Maryland. Thomas will have to be exceptional and her surrounding youth -- such as freshmen guards Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough -- can't play young.

All four coaches in this Final Four have championship rings, but other than Geno Auriemma, of course, Brenda Frese has the most recent title. It came in 2006, the last time the Terps reached the Final Four. That team had young guards who blossomed at the right time and was a dominant rebounding club. That's exactly what Frese hopes she has in Nashville once again.

Notre Dame (36-0): Prior to Monday night, all the talk surrounding the Irish was about their fluid, impossible-to-stop, weapon-rich offense, their dominance in the program's inaugural season in the rugged ACC, and the fact after losing Skylar Diggins they somehow got better.

Since Monday, that buzz has shifted to the devastating ACL injury to Achonwa and how Notre Dame might adjust at the most important time of the year without its on- and off-the-court leader. Achonwa isn't just a skilled post player. She is a director in Muffet McGraw's offense. Achonwa knows where everyone belongs, told her teammates what they should be doing when needed and was integral in the offense's often-brilliant execution. Achonwa is also the club's best and primary interior defender.

Without question, the Notre Dame team in Nashville won't be as good as the Irish of January, February and March. However, winning it all is still in their sights. With All-Americans Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame is supremely talented, and the emotional side of "let's win this for Natalie" is impossible to measure. Achonwa won't be on the floor, but if Notre Dame is going to win a second championship, the success will still be based on getting good shots, making those shots and outscoring two opponents. That also would have been the case with Achonwa. From that standpoint, neither the plan nor the goal has changed.

Stanford (33-3): The Ogwumikes' six-year run on the Farm will end at some point over the next five days. No one name has been so synonymous with one program the past couple of decades in women's basketball. Nneka and Chiney helped get Stanford to six Final Fours in the past seven years. No one player, with the exception of Baylor's Odyssey Sims, has been as vital to one team's success as Chiney has to the Cardinal. The Pac-12's all-time leading scorer and rebounder is third in the nation in points per game, ninth in rebounding, and led Stanford in scoring in all but two games all season. As great as Nneka was, she was never as singularly important as Chiney has been in 2014.

Yet the Cardinal have balance to thank for their trip to Nashville. It's what allowed Stanford to recover from an incredibly surprising loss to USC in the Pac-12 semifinals -- the first time the Cardinal failed to reach the conference tournament title game -- and a slow start in the anything-but-easy regional final victory over North Carolina. Against the Tar Heels on Tuesday, five Stanford players scored in double figures; that was just the third time that happened all season.

Ogwumike will need exactly that kind of help if the Cardinal are to climb that mountain that for the better part of the past decade has just been too high -- six Final Fours and two championship game appearances, but no titles.

Connecticut (38-0): UConn wasn't the favorite in 2013. That label belonged to Baylor. But from the moment the Huskies captured the 2013 national championship, they became the undisputed favorite to repeat in 2014.

No one plays the role of front-runner better than Connecticut. Not only did the Huskies arrive in Nashville with a perfect record, no opponent has come within single digits. Even with injuries and illness that temporarily sidelined Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes -- and knocked Morgan Tuck out for the season -- UConn dominated even against the best. The Huskies have already beaten two of the other Final Four participants: Maryland and Stanford. They won at Baylor, at Duke and at Penn State. They were 6-0 against the teams that qualified for the Elite Eight.

It hasn't at all mattered that this UConn team has no depth. When four of the six players in the rotation are legitimate All-Americans, the problems of having no bench aren't quite so pronounced. UConn is the best team in Nashville, especially with Notre Dame short-handed. And if Breanna Stewart, Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Mosqueda-Lewis play to their All-American levels, it's hard to imagine anyone else celebrating on Tuesday night.

Kayla McBride
Kayla McBride and the Irish lead the nation in field goal percentage (.510).

The games

(4) Maryland vs. (1) Notre Dame (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday)

The bad news for the Irish: On Sunday night, they are playing the one team that gave them the toughest time all season. The good news? In that Jan. 27 meeting in College Park, Notre Dame led Maryland by 12 at halftime, with Achonwa playing only three minutes and not scoring at all in the first half.

The Terrapins did rally in the game and, if not for a McBride jumper with 11 seconds left, would have had a possession to tie or win the game in the closing moments. The 87-83 Notre Dame win was the tightest game the Irish had to play all season.

If her team has lost any confidence with the loss of Achonwa, Muffet McGraw can point to that win over the Terps as the perfect example of how Notre Dame can do this without its senior forward. Achonwa was in foul trouble and essentially a non-factor, finishing with just seven points and three rebounds in 21 minutes, and Notre Dame still beat Maryland, the third-best rebounding team in the country, on the boards. Thomas got loose for 29 points and 12 rebounds and Maryland scored 50 points in the paint, but the Irish were still able to do what they do best: They shot 58.5 percent for the game and had 20 assists, categories in which they rank first and second in the country.

Loyd, as she was in the regional final against Baylor, was superb at Maryland with 31 points. The Terps didn't have an answer for her. An argument could be made that the two best players in any of the regionals were Loyd (25 PPG, 7.5 RPG) and Thomas (27.5 PPG, 13 RPG). The only possible challengers would be Sims and, unfortunately for Notre Dame, Achonwa.

Maryland had some turnover and shot selection issues even in those impressive wins over Tennessee and Louisville. Notre Dame is playing without an important piece to its success. It just might come down to which star has a better night, or the fact Loyd has McBride, a first-team All-American, riding shotgun and Thomas does not.

(2) Stanford vs. (1) Connecticut (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday)

Sunday's nightcap will also be a rematch from earlier in the season. In fact, despite their opposite-coasts status, Connecticut and Stanford are two programs intimately familiar with one another. They have met at least once in every season since 2008. This will be the third time the Huskies and Cardinal have hooked up in a national semifinal; they also met in the 2010 title game. Generally, UConn has been too much for Stanford, winning seven of the nine meetings in that span, including this season's 76-57 win on Nov. 11.

Chiney Ogwumike
Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike has shot 17-for-57 in four career games against UConn.

The Cardinal's most recent win in the series was a big one: Stanford's 12-point victory over UConn during the 2010-11 season ended the Huskies' NCAA Division I basketball record (for men or women) 90-game winning streak. Did we mention that UConn is currently riding a 44-game unbeaten streak?

In the Stanford-UConn matchup earlier this season, Amber Orrange scored a career-high 22 points to help a constantly surrounded Ogwumike. Stanford got virtually nothing from anyone else and was never really in the game. The Cardinal could not control Hartley. Despite this being the game that Mosqueda-Lewis went down with the elbow injury that cost her eight games early in the second half, UConn cruised.

The balance that Stanford talks about having will certainly be important, but a plan to free up Ogwumike might be even more advantageous and more of a necessity. The two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year is a 59 percent shooter in her four-year career. Yet in four games against the Huskies, Ogwumike has made just 17 of 57 attempts. As much as anything, Stanford needs its All-American to reverse that trend. UConn's calling card is defense and no superstar has felt that more intensely than Ogwumike.

Game-changers

Maryland: Lexie Brown. Just a freshman, she's the Terrapin most likely to break out offensively, which is vital if Maryland is going to score with Notre Dame. Like most of her teammates, Brown was great from the free throw line against Louisville. It was no coincidence that the Terps pulled the upset with Brown getting 20 points.

Notre Dame: Taya Reimer and Markisha Wright. The Irish can expect Loyd and McBride to score. Reimer and Wright can't and won't replace Achonwa, but Notre Dame needs them to take some control of the paint, be a presence and not allow Maryland to get easy second-chance baskets.

Stanford: Amber Orrange. The lefty combo guard is the most capable offensive producer to assist Ogwumike. The consistency hasn't been there. If it arrives this weekend and Orrange doesn't get too tired chasing Hartley around, Stanford will have a fighting chance.

Connecticut: Breanna Stewart. UConn's best player was not its best player at the Lincoln Regional. Stewart struggled making shots and making plays and the Huskies still won two games comfortably. Her breakout at the Final Four a year ago is what made the Huskies a national champion. If Stewart bounces back for another two-game performance like she did in New Orleans, Auriemma will have his ninth title.

Predictions

National semifinals

Notre Dame over Maryland

Connecticut over Stanford

National championship

Connecticut over Notre Dame

For complete espnW Final Four picks, click here.