- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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If revenge is a dish best served cold, then you could say Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is a top chef.
Revenge against what? The feeling of seeing something that was within her team's reach, but not attained. Revenge against disappointment.
Mulkey has led her undefeated, No. 1-seeded Baylor team into the Women's Final Four in Denver, with the Lady Bears playing basketball with brisk efficiency. Baylor will be joined by the other three No. 1 seeds: Stanford, Connecticut and Notre Dame. Everybody can wake up; the mostly snooze-worthy Elite Eight games are over.
Those of us who went out on a limb picking against an all-chalk Final Four plummeted hard to the ground. The four teams that spent most of this season in a separate compartment of the train that was winding its way toward the Rockies are the only ones still on board.
Now -- we think -- it gets really interesting. UConn and Notre Dame -- which also faced off in the national semifinals last year in Indianapolis -- will meet for the fourth time this season. Baylor and Stanford will meet for just the fourth time ever.
None of the athletes participating have any memory of the last time a Women's Final Four had all the No. 1 seeds present: It was in 1989, before virtually all the current players in college basketball were even born.
Tennessee won the title that year, beating Auburn in the final after eliminating Maryland in the semifinals. Auburn's semifinal foe had been Louisiana Tech, for whom Mulkey was an assistant.
In 1989, you wouldn't have given a plug nickel for Baylor's women's basketball aspirations. The Lady Bears were 3-23 that season and didn't even make their first NCAA tournament appearance until a dozen years later, when Mulkey took over as coach for the 2000-01 season.
By 2004, she had a team with serious Final Four potential. But Baylor was left distraught after a Sweet 16 loss to Tennessee in which a foul called with two-tenths of a second left gave the Lady Vols the chance to make the winning free throws.
How did Baylor/Mulkey respond to that the next season? By winning the NCAA title.
Now look at last year, when Mulkey was steaming mad over being placed in the same regional with Texas A&M, which Baylor had already defeated three times. No team was in better position to knock off Baylor, knowing the Lady Bears as they did, than the Aggies. And Texas A&M did indeed win.
So how has Baylor/Mulkey responded to that this season? With 38 consecutive victories and a laser focus on a second NCAA championship.
Notice to disappointment: Once again, Mulkey is out to get back at you big time.
"Actually, it's not a 'revenge' thing; that word can be used in a hateful way," Mulkey said. "It's just that something in our lives has to keep us looking to tomorrow. And I think all the things that knock you back keep you searching for another shot to do it over."
Whatever you want to call it, it's clearly a mighty powerful motivator. But you could say all of the 2012 Women's Final Four participants feel it in some way.
Take Stanford. The Cardinal in the Final Four has been like Meryl Streep at the Academy Awards: in the running year after year, but not bringing home the prize.
That changed for the "Iron Lady" this year, as she won the best actress Oscar for the first time since 1982. This is Stanford's eighth Final Four since its last NCAA title, in 1992. So might it finally be the Cardinal's turn again?
Stanford has a unanimous first-team All-American in senior Nneka Ogwumike and a second-teamer in her sophomore sister Chiney. But
Baylor has the same thing in junior first-teamer Brittney Griner and sophomore Odyssey Sims on the second team. Baylor beat the other two Final Four teams -- Notre Dame 94-81 and UConn 66-61 -- this season. Of the three, Stanford played only UConn, which in November gave the Cardinal their lone loss, 68-58.
There have been all kinds of theories floated about how to beat Baylor, the most potentially successful involving an act of the supernatural. Since Stanford is unlikely to try that route, what will the Cardinal do?
Clearly, they've got the Sister Act inside that is like no other set of posts in the country with their mind-reading ability to play off each other. They've got the potential to play very big or go with a smaller, quicker lineup. Almost all the Cardinal players have some Final Four experience.
Trying to beat Baylor without much success from behind the arc is like attempting to win a golf tournament using only one club: Technically, you could do it, but we're not sure how.
Because unless you can really s-t-r-e-t-c-h the Lady Bears' defense beyond its vast comfort zone, you will mostly just be adding to your turnover total and Griner's block tally, while subtracting from your shooting percentage.
Stanford made 17 3-pointers in its first four NCAA tournament games; repeating the seven it got against Duke in the Elite Eight could at least help to slay the Green Giant.
Notre Dame had this in common with Baylor and Stanford last year: a bad ending at the hands of Texas A&M. The Irish fell to the Aggies in the NCAA title game after Texas A&M had defeated the Cardinal in the semis.
The Irish beat their longtime Big East nemesis UConn in the 2011 semis, and the emotion that game took might have sapped a lesser team for the final. But that didn't happen to Notre Dame; it took an excellent offensive night by Texas A&M's Danielle Adams and Tyra White to send the Irish home disappointed on the relatively short trip from Indy to South Bend.
So just as Baylor and Stanford have been stirring a cauldron of "remember last year," Notre Dame has been watching its own Irish stew bubble as well. Coach Muffett McGraw's squad got two victories over UConn on the way to the program's first outright Big East regular-season title, but then lost the Hartford Invitational -- aka the Big East tournament -- to UConn.
The Irish also have a first-team All-American in Skylar Diggins, who had a triple-double in Notre Dame's 80-49 smackdown of Maryland on Tuesday. Maryland went 0-for-8 from behind the arc against Notre Dame, which clobbered a Terp team known for its rebounding with a 41-26 edge on the boards.
As for UConn, last year was a "disappointment" only to those in the Huskies' fan base that expect to win every game by 20 points. (Which is, you know, a pretty big portion of it.) After back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2009 and '10, UConn was stopped short of the program's second three-peat.
UConn does not have any first-team All-Americans this year but still made the Final Four in a postseason run in which they've never been all that far from their Storrs campus. The Big East tourney was in Hartford, the NCAA early rounds in Bridgeport, Conn., and the regional in Kingston, R.I. Now the Huskies will have to leave the neighborhood, only to run into their most familiar foe.
Without a superstar like Maya Moore, UConn relied even more this year on its boa constrictor-like defense, which Notre Dame was able to wriggle out of during the regular season with 74-67 (in overtime) and 72-59 victories. The 63-54 UConn win in the Big East final over the Irish was much more to the Huskies' liking in terms of who dictated the pace.
So now it's onto Denver with essentially the four dictators who've more or less ruled over this season. It's been 23 years since "1" was the "only-est" number at the Final Four. But considering the quartet involved, we shouldn't be surprised it finally happened again.
12dBonnie D. Ford