- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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It was a whirlwind of extreme emotions, as befits a day of last chances for teams to earn their trips to the Women's Final Four.
There was extra emotion, though -- that of a heartbreaking kind. Tuesday afternoon, it was confirmed that Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa's college career was finished because of a knee injury.
The Irish will be at the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year, and they couldn't have had their perfect season so far without their "Ace," as Achonwa is known by her teammates. But now, as the program attempts to win the NCAA title, Notre Dame will have to do it without her.
No. 1 seed Notre Dame will face its fellow ACC team (for this season, anyway) Maryland, a No. 4 seed, in the national semifinals in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday (ESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET). On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 seed and defending champion UConn will meet No. 2 seed Stanford (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday), a matchup we've seen many times before.
The Terrapins are definitely the "surprise" squad in this year's Final Four, even though Maryland won an NCAA title as recently as 2006. That was an unexpected championship, frankly, as young as Maryland was then. But the Terps haven't been back to the Final Four since, and not a lot of folks were expecting them to do so this year.
Consider that Maryland -- which is headed to the Big Ten next season -- lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament to North Carolina (more on the Tar Heels later). Then the Terps went to the wire on their home court in the NCAA's second round against Texas, winning by just five points.
Who was picking the Terps to knock off No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16? About the same number who expected Maryland to beat No. 3 seed Louisville on the Cardinals' home court in the Elite Eight.
Yet Maryland won both those games, and now will face a Notre Dame squad that is without the player who has led the Irish in rebounding (9.8) and ranked second on the team in scoring (20.5) during the NCAA tournament. Maryland gave the unbeaten Irish their closest game this season: an 87-83 Notre Dame victory on Jan. 27 in College Park, Md.
Strangely enough, after coming through the Louisville Regional as the underdog, the Terps now might find themselves knocked out of that underdog role by Notre Dame because of Achonwa's injury.
Speaking of being knocked out, it looked like it might happen to Stanford, too, on its home court at the hands of No. 4 seed North Carolina. But the Tar Heels -- who are led by freshmen and sophomores -- were stopped short 74-65 in a game that was really closer than the final score. It could have been a repeat of 2006, when three ACC teams made the Women's Final Four. But Stanford's surge in the final minutes prevented that scenario.
Now let's bid a not-so-fond farewell to teams' home courts serving as regional sites. After a decade away from this practice, the NCAA returned to it this year, even though most coaches seemed against it. Next season, the NCAA will go back to neutral regional sites. Also returning for 2015 will be the top-16 seeds hosting early-round games, which was the system commonly used until 2002.
All this will mean that teams can earn the advantage of playing at home for the first two rounds, then that advantage rightly will go away for the regionals. It's a much better system.
As it turned out, two teams won regionals on their home courts this year: Notre Dame and Stanford. Nebraska, the other regional host, did not advance to the Sweet 16.
UConn won the regional in Lincoln, Neb., and the Huskies had by far the least drama in their Elite Eight game. UConn beat No. 3 seed Texas A&M 69-54 on Monday. It will be making the program's 15th trip to the Final Four, including the last seven in a row. Stanford, meanwhile, will make its 12th overall appearance in the national semifinals.
There's a big difference in national championships, though. UConn has eight and Stanford has two -- the last being in 1992. So can the Cardinal pull the upset of UConn in Nashville?
UConn has a 9-6 series edge against Stanford, including a 76-57 victory over the Cardinal in the Huskies' second game this season, on Nov. 11. UConn junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis suffered an elbow injury in that game, the first of some difficult health setbacks for her this season.
Yet, at the most important time of the season, Mosqueda-Lewis is back very strong. She was named the Lincoln Regional's most outstanding player Monday as part of an impressive team effort by UConn.
Yes, the Huskies are definitely favored against the Cardinal ... and to win it all, for that matter. But of the teams' five meetings that have come during the NCAA tournament, Stanford has at least won two of them. Those victories over UConn came in the Sweet 16 in 2005 and the national semifinals in 2008.
Stanford's last victory against UConn was notable, as well. On Dec. 30, 2010, the Cardinal ended the Huskies' record 90-game winning streak with a 71-59 win. Chiney Ogwumike was a freshman on that Stanford team and had the tough task of helping to guard then-senior superstar Maya Moore.
Now Ogwumike is a senior All-American herself, and likely soon will follow in the footsteps of Moore and of her own sister, Nneka Ogwumike, as a No. 1 WNBA draft pick.
Before any of that pro stuff, though, Chiney and her "Nerd Nation" friends will try to give Stanford its third NCAA title, which has been a long time coming.
As for Maryland and Notre Dame, both will be seeking a second title for their programs; the Irish got theirs in 2001.
Before Achonwa's injury, the overriding narrative for this Women's Final Four was very focused on the possibility of two unbeatens meeting for the national title. Now, it has shifted a bit.
Yes, that could still happen, but the Irish will need a team effort to fill in for Achonwa in facing the surging Terps and senior All-American Alyssa Thomas.
So it's a Women's Final Four lineup somewhat like we were anticipating ... but also with some significant plot twists.
The overriding narrative for this Women's Final Four has been focused on the possibility of unbeaten UConn and Notre Dame meeting for the national title. That still might happen. But with Natalie Achonwa's injury, Maryland making its way to Nashville, and Stanford having familiarity and success against UConn, new plot twists have emerged.