By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ The women’s basketball Final Four features Hall of Fame coaches, star players, fabulous freshmen and of course for the first time ever– two undefeated teams.
Welcome to Music City, UConn, Notre Dame, Stanford, and Maryland.
The Huskies have been on season-long quest to repeat and win a record ninth national championship. While such a talented lineup returning, it wasn’t a huge surprise UConn would have a chance to go unbeaten. The Irish’s undefeated season was more unexpected. Especially with the loss of guard Skylar Diggins to graduation.
Still, the two teams are on course for an unprecedented national championship showdown, if they can get by Stanford and Maryland.
There will be a certain familiarity in the two national semifinal games as both are early season rematches, though the coaches say none of the teams are the same.
Probably the biggest change is in Notre Dame’s lineup; senior forward Natalie Achonwa suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor.
The Irish will have had a few days to adjust to the loss of their leader when they face Maryland on Sunday night. The two teams met in January and the Irish were comfortably in charge of that game before the Terps rallied from a 22-point first-half deficit before losing by four.
“That may have been the turning point of the season for (Maryland freshman) Lexie Brown,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think she’s really come into her own since that game.”
UConn had a little easier time with Stanford back in November, cruising to a 19-point win.
Connecticut was victorious despite losing Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis early in the second half to an elbow injury and star sophomore Breanna Stewart in foul trouble.
Here are five things to look for in the Final Four:
STAR POWER: There is no shortage of star players in the Final Four. Four of the five first-team All-Americans are still playing. Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas has raised her game in the NCAA tournament while Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike has carried the Cardinal. UConn’s Breanna Stewart had a record tournament as a freshman last season and has helped the Huskies win 44-straight games. Notre Dame may have the best backcourt in the country with Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. Both will be depended on to overcome the loss of Achonwa.
CHAMPIONSHIP COACHES: Some of the best coaches in the women’s game will be roaming the sideline. Each of the four have won national championships with Auriemma leading the way with eight. Auriemma and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer are Hall of Famers and all four have been previously honored as AP Coach of the Year.
BACK AGAIN: Reaching the Final Four seems to have become an annual rite for UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford. The Huskies have been to the national semifinals seven straight years while the Irish have made four straight. Stanford had a run of five in a row snapped last season by Georgia, but the Cardinal are back again for the sixth time in seven years. Maryland is the newcomer, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2006 _ the year they won the national title.
FRESHMEN FOCUS: Lexie Brown has had an impressive tournament. The Maryland freshman scored 20 points, including hitting nine of 10 free throws, to get the Terps to the Final Four. She earned All-Regional honors. Notre Dame first-year player Taya Reimer has also played well, and will likely get more opportunities with Achonwa sidelined. Stanford’s Lili Thompson is the team’s third-leading scorer and is building a reputation as a fierce defender. She shut down Penn State’s Maggie Lucas in the regional semifinals, then went toe-to-toe with Diamond DeShields of North Carolina in the regional final.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING: If UConn or Notre Dame does win the title it will mark the second time ever that all three NCAA divisions had teams post undefeated records in the same season. Bentley won the Division II title this season and FDU-Florham was the DIII champ. In 1995, Connecticut, North Dakota State and Capital were all unbeaten.
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