By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
Get ready for Connecticut vs. Notre Dame round four.
For the third straight season the two Big East rivals will meet in the Final Four. Throw in plucky Louisville and the Big East will be taking over the Big Easy this weekend.
The Cardinals, who pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament knocking off Brittney Griner and Baylor, will face Final Four newcomer California on Sunday in the first game in New Orleans.
It’s the first time since 2006 that a conference has three teams in the Final Four, and the last year the Big East will compete with its current lineup. Notre Dame is headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, Louisville will join the Irish in 2014, while UConn is slated to remain in the soon-to-be-renamed Big East.
Skylar Diggins and her Fighting Irish will play Connecticut in the second game. The All-America guard didn’t want to focus on the pending matchup with their rival instead wanting to soak in a third straight trip to the Final Four.
“We’re enjoying the moment right now,” Diggins said. “We’ll talk about that later.”
The Irish (35-1) have owned this rivalry lately winning seven of the last eight meetings, including both of the national semifinal matchups. The two teams played three thrilling games this year with Notre Dame coming out on top of all of them. The victories have been by one point, two points and in overtime.
No team has ever dominated Geno Auriemma’s Huskies like that since UConn won its first national championship in 1995.
The road to an eighth title got a bit easier for all four participants when Griner and the defending national champions were knocked off by the Cardinals. It’s the first time that the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship didn’t reach the Final Four since Tennessee lost to Duke in the 19 regional final.
Louisville joined the school’s men’s team in the Final Four marking the 10th time that a school had both men’s and women’s teams in the Final Four. Only Connecticut has won both titles in the same season doing that in 2004 _ the last time the women’s national semifinals was in New Orleans.
The Cardinals (28-8) are only the second No. 5 seed to reach the national semifinals, joining Southwest Missouri State, which did it in 2001 behind star guard Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history.
“We ruined the entire party,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “We’re the ugly ducklings that ruined the party. no one gave us a chance and we shocked everybody.”
UConn (33-4) is making a record sixth straight trip to the Final Four. The Huskies have a chance to salvage a disappointing season with an eighth national championship that would tie Tennessee for the most in NCAA women’s basketball history.
“Each year is different … special in its own way,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “This is our last go-around. We want to go out with a bang. I’m fortunate to be part of this program where we make it every year. We never are satisfied until we get to that final game.”
The Huskies have run through their four opponents so far, winning by an average of 39 points, including a 30-point victory over Kentucky in the regional final on Monday night. UConn’s only losses this season came to the Irish and Lady Bears.
The Irish’s only loss this season came at home against Baylor. They’ve won 30 straight games since en route to a second straight conference title and the first Big East tournament championship in school history.
While UConn and Notre Dame are Final Four veterans, Cal is making its first trip to the national semifinals and Louisville returns for the first time since 2009.
Cal (32-3) survived overtime games against South Florida in the second round and Georgia in the regional final to become the first team from the West other than Stanford to reach the national semifinals since Long Beach State in 1988.
During that 25-year span, eight different programs in the West have reached the regional finals. But whether it was Long Beach State, Washington, USC, UCLA, Colorado, Utah, Arizona State or Gonzaga, they all came up one game short _ sometimes at the hands of Stanford _ of advancing.
“These kids are brought in,” coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “So many things go into it and then you have to get a little lucky and then things have to go right, so I’m really conscious of this is special.”
Gottlieb who was in elementary school the last time a West Coast women’s basketball program not named Stanford reached the Final Four.
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