Huskies are still the heavy favorite
But three challengers at Final Four present solid obstacles to perfect season
TRENTON, N.J. -- Elegant in both appearance and purpose, the arch has allowed people to build bigger and better for more than two millennia. It opened up spaces otherwise beyond our reach, just as the Gateway Arch that stands sentry on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis symbolizes the start from which earlier generations set out toward an unfamiliar horizon.
It's in the shadow of that 630-foot arch that Connecticut, Louisville, Oklahoma and Stanford gather for the Final Four, each a marvel of construction in its own right and each eager to use St. Louis less as a destination than a layover on the route to greater things.
This might be portrayed as the Final Four of foregone conclusions, but it's more than a coronation. The three games between now and Tuesday night are not just ceremonial.
It doesn't hurt that more than half of the AP first- and second-team All-America teams will be on the court in St. Louis, with at least one representative playing for each of the four contenders. Granted, three of them -- first-teamers Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore and second-teamer Tina Charles -- play for Connecticut, but Louisville's Angel McCoughtry, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris and Stanford's Jayne Appel can each be the best player on the floor on any given night, even when the team from Storrs is on hand.
It's going to take a team playing its absolute best to beat Connecticut, but grit and luck aren't enough. It's also going to take talent. Put another way, Hickory High doesn't win without Jimmy Chitwood hitting shots, but it also doesn't win without Merle getting rebounds and Buddy feeding Chitwood the ball. And in addition to three of the biggest stars in the game, the teams seeking to deny the Huskies in St. Louis arrive as the three most complete challengers in the field.
Oklahoma's Paris rivals Moore as the college game's most recognizable name, in part because of the lineage she shares with twin sister Ashley and NFL father Bubba, but mostly because of the scoring and rebounding records she has all to herself. And after three years of trying, Sooners coach Sherri Coale came up with a mix of players who could avoid simultaneously weighing down Paris' back and withering in her shadow.
That started with Ashley, who after last season's disappointing second-round exit remade herself into the kind of inside-outside, offense-defense jack of all trades largely missing when the team took on quicker, more athletic teams from the Big East, ACC or SEC (the Sooners were 0-3 in marquee games against Maryland, Tennessee and Connecticut the last three seasons). But the process included the arrival and maturation of ridiculously quick point guard Danielle Robinson and freshman Whitney Hand, a shooter with the size and handle to compete at both ends in the increasingly athletic upper levels of the game.
While the Sooners built a fitting team around their high-profile star -- complete with everything from Robinson's flash to a Super Bowl quarterback's sister in Carlee Roethlisberger -- Louisville coach Jeff Walz constructed a team content to let its actions speak louder than its words. Such was the necessity with a star whose energy and emotion can fill an arena the same way she fills a stat sheet.
Final Four schedule
SUNDAY, APRIL 5
• No. 3 Louisville vs. No. 1 Oklahoma
(ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
• No. 2 Stanford vs. No. 1 Connecticut (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
TUESDAY, APRIL 7
• National championship
(ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)
All games also available on ESPN360.com.
Lovingly dubbed the team's "crazy aunt," McCoughtry sometimes looks like a one-woman wrecking crew, twisting and turning her body to knock down shots from impossible angles or jumping passing lanes to swipe passes and propel herself into the open court. But from a coach who devises meticulous game plans to the cast of characters who know when to let McCoughtry do her thing -- waiting in the wings for 3-pointers, following up for offensive rebounds and ensuring her defensive gambles are supported -- there is pinpoint precision and quiet resolve behind the star's soliloquies.
Stanford was supposed to be the team that didn't have the right fit to reach the Final Four this season. Not after Candice Wiggins, the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer, took her game to the WNBA and starting point guard JJ Hones went down with a season-ending knee injury in her second game of the regular season. But just as nothing seems to get to Appel, as unflappably intense on the block as she is unfailingly mellow off the court, obstacle after obstacle fell by the wayside for an improving team.
The Cardinal didn't have a point guard after they lost Hones, so sophomore Jeanette Pohlen stepped in and led the team in assists, nearly doubling her freshman total without a corresponding bump in turnovers. There wasn't enough diversity from behind the arc without Wiggins and Hones, so forwards Kayla Pedersen and Jillian Harmon knocked down 44 3-pointers -- exactly four times as many as their combined total last season.
And for an event held with the sole purpose of determining the sport's biggest winner, there's going to be a lot of talk about losing leading up to Sunday's semifinals.
Louisville and Oklahoma will square off in the first semifinal Sunday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), leaving the winner just 40 minutes from what would be the first national championship in either program's history. And yet as they prepare for each other, both will face questions about losing to Connecticut by 28 points earlier in the season (in Louisville's case, a result that was actually the least painful of two losses against the tournament's top seed).
Then, chasing perfection in the present and basketball immortality for the future in the nightcap, Connecticut must first confront proof of its own flaws. It was just a year ago that Stanford interceded to prevent an anticipated championship game between old rivals Connecticut and Tennessee, beating the Huskies 82-73 in a semifinal, only to watch its own season end one win short of ideal with a loss to the Lady Vols in the title game.
"It's poetic," Connecticut's Kalana Greene said of the rematch. "It's like a movie or something. It never happens like that, and I'm happy it's happened. You know, last year we thought it was our dream season, and it got cut short. And I think we're going back for revenge. They exposed us last year. And hopefully we can do what we've been doing all this year; we're a different team, different mindset. And hopefully we can go out there and win the game."
The Huskies certainly arrive in St. Louis as the heavy favorite to win two games, but all four of these teams are constructed elegantly and efficiently enough to dream of doing that. And all four belong under the arch.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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