Upsets on the other side of the bracket have been the story so far this tournament, but for the third straight year, the biggest rivalry in women's college basketball takes center stage in the Final Four. This Sunday (8:30pm ET, ESPN), Notre Dame takes on the Connecticut Huskies to try to continue their recent dominance over the most decorated program in women's basketball history.
The Irish are 3-0 against UConn so far this season, including a one-point victory, a triple-overtime thriller in South Bend, and the Big East championship game in which Notre Dame nearly blew a second half double-digit lead. But those narrow outcomes mean very little to this one, especially when you consider two years ago when the Irish won the Final Four match up against a UConn team that had beat them three times before in that season.
Both teams will suit up three AP All-Americans, with Irish point guard Skylar Diggins being the only first-team player remaining in the tournament. Teammates Kayla McBride (third-team) and Natalie Achonwa (honorable mention) also earned All-American honors. For the Huskies, leading scorer and three-point specialist Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was named to the second team, while forward Stefanie Dolson (third-team) and guard Kelly Faris (honorable mention) also earned accolades.
This game has it all: star power, historic programs, fierce rivalry, two colorful coaches, and major championship implications. Many think that the winner of this one will win the championship regardless of the eventual opponent, and perhaps even more than the national championship game, this is must-see television.
As for the eventual championship game opponent for either UConn or Notre Dame, the winner of the match up between Louisville and California will await. Louisville is one of the most surprising Final Four teams in women's tournament history, taking down the overall number one seed Baylor Bears in the Sweet Sixteen. It was an impressive performance by the Cardinals, as they dominated for about 35 minutes before the game turned into a thriller in the final minutes. Louisville held on thanks in part to 16 three-pointers and 48% shooting. Still, this is a team the Irish beat twice by an average of 26.5 points, and it's hard to imagine them taking down either Big East opponent that embarrassed them in the regular season. Crazier things have happened, I suppose.
For their part, the Cal Golden Bears have needed two overtime victories to navigate their way into the Final Four. They enter the Final Four with only three losses on the season, albeit against a fairly weak schedule. While having an excellent season, they are still a tier below the Irish and Huskies but have a great chance to get to Tuesday night and prove they belong in the upper echelon.
After coming up short in the last two national championship games, Muffet McGraw and her lady Irish have never had a better chance to come away with a championship trophy. Whereas in the last two years when they have scraped to get by UConn only to be met by another dominant opponent, their hypothetical championship game match up would be markedly weaker this time around. Still, beating the Huskies for the fourth time this season will be a formidable challenge.
It would be a shame to see a player like Skylar Diggins, who has taken this program to a new stratosphere, graduate after barely coming up short three years in a row. Let's hope the Irish can find a way to get by UConn and finally take care of business in the championship game. With the talent that is on this roster including the best player in the tournament, this might be Muffet's best chance yet for her second national title.