- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Certainly, no one would have questioned the idea that two of the quartet from last season's Final Four would make a return trip to this year's event. But three of the same teams?
Considering all that both Oklahoma and Louisville lost to graduation, it seemed highly improbable that either would join Connecticut and Stanford at the Final Four in San Antonio. And it was, indeed, a tough year for Louisville, which did not make the NCAA tournament field. But for Oklahoma, even the loss of the Paris twins couldn't keep the Sooners away from the Alamo City.
Oklahoma, the No. 3 seed in the Kansas City Regional, became the last team to punch its ticket to Texas with an 88-68 victory over fourth-seeded Kentucky on Tuesday night. The Sooners' triumph gave the Big 12 two teams in the Final Four for the first time in conference history.
Of course, neither OU nor Baylor won the Big 12 regular-season (Nebraska) or tournament (Texas A&M) titles. But in the postseason, they were the top two teams from the Jumbo Dozen.
In the Memphis Regional, Baylor knocked off top-seeded Tennessee and No. 2 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. In KC, Oklahoma went to overtime to beat 2-seed Notre Dame and then, after a very shaky start, ended up dominating Kentucky.
"Even when we were dismal in the first five minutes, the look in the huddle was one of belief," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of the Sooners' trailing 15-2 early. "They felt like they belonged here and believed in their ability to get the job done."
Connecticut is the lone Final Four representative that had no actual drama along the way, methodically dispatching every foe thus far. Baylor and Stanford went down to the wire in their Elite Eight games, the Cardinal especially so with Jeanette Pohlen's coast-to-coast buzzer-beating layup against Xavier.
Oklahoma's most tense game was the Sweet 16 matchup with Notre Dame, in which Nyeshia Stevenson's 3-pointer late in overtime was the key shot. Stevenson, the Kansas City Regional's Most Outstanding Player, scored 31 points against Kentucky.
In Sunday's first game at the Final Four in San Antonio, Oklahoma will face Stanford (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). They have met three previous times in the NCAA tournament; the Sooners won in 2001 (second round), while the Cardinal won in '04 (second round) and '06 (Sweet 16). That last matchup was in San Antonio.
"Stanford's an offense that's rhythmic, and you've got to break the rhythm," Coale said. "You can't let them get the ball where they want to get it. They're incredibly different than Kentucky, night and day."
The semifinal nightcap will be the undefeated Huskies against Baylor, led by star freshman Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 center who has blocked an NCAA tournament-record 35 shots so far in four games.
"Believe me, this is probably one of the hardest things that any coach has had to do that's gotten ready to play them, is figure out how to deal with her," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "And the last part of the season, not too many people have been successful."
By the same token, nobody has been successful at stopping the Huskies for two years.
No. 1 seed Connecticut
Tourney run: This went exactly as expected. The Huskies scored well and clamped down defensively and that was that. Apparently, in the desperate desire to have something new to talk about in regard to UConn, the emerging buzz phrase is that the Huskies "just don't get enough credit for their defense."
Uh, right. For one thing, it isn't true; there have been countless stories written about how stifling and energetic UConn's defense is. For another thing, it's not uncommon for there to be more chatter about a great offense than a great defense. As former UConn great Diana Taurasi once said -- as only she could -- of how her scoring usually got her the most acclaim, "If you do one thing really well, that's what people notice. But these people who are called 'great' defensive players -- it's probably because they can't shoot. If you can't dribble, shoot or pass, you better play some good defense."
The Huskies can do it all, and have shown that in their four tournament games thus far, winning by an average of 47 points and holding their opponents to an average shooting percentage of 25.7 (62-of-241).
Regular-season memory: Way back on Nov. 17 in San Antonio, the Huskies took on Texas in a game that was supposed to show whether the Longhorns might be national contenders and how UConn really was going to adjust to no longer having Renee Montgomery as point guard. The Huskies won 83-58, making it clear Texas had a long way to go (the Horns didn't get there) and that UConn would be fine without its former floor general.
Top storylines: To say Maya Moore is putting on a show in the NCAA tournament is to suggest that it's drastically different than what she has been doing all season. And it's not, really. It's just more spectacular. She has shot 63.8 percent from the field in the four games. The Huskies' winning streak is now at 76 and all have been by double digits. The Huskies have shot 53.2 percent from the field in the tournament.
Rising star: Coach Geno Auriemma was looking forward to how good a player freshman Kelly Faris would prove to be, and she has really gotten more of a spotlight in the NCAA tournament. Faris has averaged 9.3 points in the NCAA games and shown an aggressive physicality on defense, which fits right in with how the rest of the Huskies play.
How they will fare: Not much reason to not predict a second consecutive NCAA championship for the Huskies.
No. 4 seed Baylor
Tourney run: Baylor fell to Oklahoma in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, but coach Kim Mulkey said she was looking forward to how her team would do in the NCAA tournament. Melissa Jones got back into action in that game against OU and showed a bit in that game what she has shown a lot of in the NCAA tournament. Jones has averaged 9.0 points in Baylor's four victories.
Defense has been the big key for Baylor, though, as it has held its NCAA tourney opponents to an average of 49.5 points. Baylor really set the tone for how well it would play defensively by keeping Georgetown from having any success in a 49-33 second-round victory.
Understandably, a lot of the attention has been on freshman Brittney Griner and her tournament-record 35 blocked shots. But it has been a full-team performance, with contributions from everyone. It ranges from the lone senior, Morghan Medlock, to freshmen Kimetria Hayden, Jordan Madden and Shanay Washington.
Baylor's confidence hasn't seemed to be shaken this season, despite losing nine games and finishing tied for sixth (9-7) in the Big 12 conference. Mulkey said all along there would be a growing curve, and there has been. It has been noticeably on the upswing in the last couple of weeks.
Regular-season memory: On Jan. 23 at Missouri, Baylor lost 70-62 to the last-place team in the Big 12. The Tigers won only two league games all season, and this was one of them. When Mulkey talks about how freshmen have ups and downs, this was one of the "down" games she has experienced. Baylor had almost as many turnovers (20) as field goals in that game (21).
Top storylines: Griner's defensive prowess has been a work in progress all season, and now it's a huge factor for Baylor. Her anchoring the middle has allowed her teammates to feel a certain comfort level with defending aggressively on the perimeter. Griner's offense has also been very good, as she's averaging 16.8 points in the tournament. Baylor advances to its second Final Four and provides the event a "home-state" team.
Rising star: Griner had already grabbed the starring role before she played a single game for Baylor, thanks to her dunking reputation. But other than her, the Baylor freshman who has had a strong tournament thus far is Hayden, who averaged 6.8 points in the four Memphis Regional games and made some big defensive plays.
How they will fare: As good as Baylor has been at stifling NCAA tourney foes, UConn has been even better, allowing an average of just 40.3 points. Baylor will need its best from the youngsters Sunday. But with Mulkey coaching, you know this team won't back down.
No. 1 seed Stanford
Tourney run: Everything was just going swimmingly until Xavier almost sank this season for Stanford in the Elite Eight. Monday's thrill-ride finish in a 55-53 victory might obscure how easily the Cardinal dispatched of their previous three foes.
Stanford won those three games -- over UC Riverside, Iowa and Georgia -- by an average of 32.7 points, and the Cardinal players really hadn't had a game that might even have scared them a bit since a 65-61 victory at UCLA in January.
After winning the regular-season and tournament titles in a young and still-developing Pac-10, then cruising against NCAA foes that were either completely overmatched or simply didn't execute well, the reality is that Stanford had little real-game preparation for what it faced from the Musketeers.
Now, there are two ways to look at what happened. Did Xavier expose Stanford as a shaky No. 1 seed? Or did Stanford simply prove that even when tested -- on a night when Jayne Appel played just 18 minutes and fouled out with eight points -- it can find a way to stand up to the challenge?
Stanford will have the opportunity show which it is against an Oklahoma team that is quick and confident after its run through the Kansas City Regional.
Regular-season memory: Of course, we go back to Dec. 23, when at halftime against UConn, it really looked like Stanford was a legitimate challenger to the Huskies. Stanford had faced Gonzaga, DePaul, Duke and Tennessee -- all would make the NCAA tournament -- in its four previous games before going to Hartford, Conn. The Cardinal led UConn 40-38 after a scintillating first half. But the Huskies came out roaring after the break and won 80-68.
Top storylines: Nneka Ogwumike elevated her game as expected this season and was the Pac-10 Player of the Year. She has become one of the most exciting post players in the country to watch. Kayla Pedersen, the 6-foot-4 do-it-all player for Stanford, really has had to do it all. Pedersen's versatility to swing out to the perimeter has been a big aid in allowing Ogwumike to flourish inside. But Monday, the Cardinal needed Pedersen to play big on the interior, and she did that with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Stanford will need senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude to have one of her better defensive games going against the speed of Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson.
Rising star: With Stanford making its third consecutive trip to the Final Four, this is a familiar cast of characters. One player who is less-known, though, is freshman Joslyn Tinkle, who has been Appel's backup at center. Stanford has not needed a lot from her this season, but at crunch time in Monday's game -- after Appel fouled out -- the one basket Tinkle made was crucial. She scored with 1:11 left to tie the score at 51.
How they will fare: It depends on how Stanford responds after escaping Xavier. If Appel comes back with a huge game and the Cardinal's defense can slow Oklahoma on the perimeter somewhat, then Stanford can make its second appearance in the national championship game in three years.
No. 3 seed Oklahoma
Tourney run: When teams say, "Nobody expected us to be here," they are too often just exaggerating to pump themselves up as valiant underdogs. But the Sooners can say it, and for the most part, they are right. With graduation and injuries taking out three-fifths of their starting lineup from last season's Final Four team, Oklahoma had to reinvent itself to a degree.
The one thing it didn't have to change was the leadership of fleet point guard Danielle Robinson. Coach Sherri Coale went to her first Final Four, in 2002, with Stacey Dales -- a 6-footer who was a passing whiz -- at the point. The 5-foot-9 Robinson is a very different player, but one thing that is similar is the easy communication Coale between coach and point guard.
Center Abi Olajuwon, who waited until her senior season to really get a chance to play, came up big and earned her "own" Final Four berth after experiencing one as a backup last season.
The Sooners had to work hard for all their tourney wins, against South Dakota State (by nine points), Arkansas-Little Rock (16), Notre Dame (five, in overtime) and then Kentucky (20, after trailing by 13 in the first half). But that's the kind of season it has been for OU: Not much has come easily, but the Sooners haven't seemed to mind at all. In fact, they've thrived on adversity.
Regular-season memory: After a loss to UConn in an emotionally charged Big Monday game on Feb. 15, the Sooners had six days until their next game, at Kansas State. They came out looking rustier than an old hinge, and the Wildcats jumped all over them in the first half, leading by 16 at the break.
The Sooners were down 21 with 16 minutes left in the game before embarking on a 15-0 run that changed the game's tone. OU came all the way back to win 64-58.
Top storylines: Nyeshia Stevenson's scoring prowess has been on display, as she has averaged 19.8 points in the four NCAA games thus far. Olajuwon, who replaced Courtney Paris as a starter, was the Sooners' top scorer for the first three rounds of the tournament, averaging 18.0 points in those games. She had just six against Kentucky, but the Sooners were getting so much from others, they didn't need a lot of offense from Olajuwon. Amanda Thompson, who was the Big 12's leading rebounder this season, has averaged 10.8 boards in the NCAA tournament.
Rising star: The word for Jasmine Hartman might not be "star," but her stock has certainly risen this season. She had to step into the starting lineup when Whitney Hand suffered an ACL injury in November. Hartman doesn't bring the scoring power that Hand does, but she has been a strong defender and a good chemistry player.
How they will fare: With their experience in coming back for a second consecutive Final Four, the Sooners should not be underestimated. Even though they are undersized compared to Stanford -- the lone NCAA No. 1 seed that OU did not face during the regular season -- the Sooners have enough quickness and athleticism to disrupt the Cardinal. A huge key will be if Stanford asserts itself on the boards, which is hard to do against the likes of Thompson.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.