...and then there were four.
The match ups for the women's NCAA tournament "Final Four" are set. The first game on Easter Sunday will pit Stanford (1) against Oklahoma (3), with the late game featuring Baylor (4) attempting to disrupt the course of history against Connecticut (1).
The quartet contains three teams making a repeat appearance in the Final Four, the lone newcomer being Baylor.
Let's preview the games, shall we?
Stanford (35-1) vs. Oklahoma (27-10)
Stanford is making its third consecutive trip to the Final Four, having lost to UConn in the semis last year and to Louisville in the final in 2008. The Cardinal have lost just once this year—to UConn on Dec. 23. Reaching the championship game is a mission for these kids, but OU poses a substantial roadblock.
Their mission was nearly ended in the Elite Eight—Stanford should consider themselves lucky just to be here. After steamrolling through the first three rounds, the Cardinal needed buzzer-beating heroics from PG Jeanette Pohlen to get past Xavier.
On a side note, I've never felt as bad for a losing team as I did for Xavier. For a senior to miss two game-winning, uncontested layups is just heartbreaking.
Oklahoma is making their second straight trip to the Final Four, but, unlike Stanford, doesn't really resemble last year's team. Gone to graduation are the Paris twins, and star guard Whitney Hand was lost to injury. The Sooners weren't even the best team in their conference. Nebraska won the regular season title, and Texas A&M won the Big 12 tournament.
The Sooners are, pardon the cliche, peaking at the right time. A guard dominated team, led by jet PG Danielle Robinson and the Kansas City region Most Outstanding Player Nyeshia Stevenson, has been strengthened considerably by the emergence of Abi Olajuwon in the post.
Their path to the Final Four has not been smooth. A closer-than-it-should-have-been game against South Dakota State should have sounded warning bells. They breezed past UA-LR, but needed OT to get past Notre Dame. A 15-2 early deficit against Kentucky looked like it would be the end of their run, but man, did they respond, thoroughly dominating UK from that point forward.
How Stanford responds coming off one of their worst games of the year might be the key to this game. Oklahoma has excellent team quickness, athleticism, and experience.
What they don't have is PAC 10 Player of the Year Nneka Ogwumike. They don't have Jayne Appel. Most importantly, they probably don't have an answer for do-everything forward Kayla Pedersen.
I refuse to deviate from my pick at the start of the tournament—Stanford wins this game. It should be a great game, but I think Stanford's front line carries the day.
Connecticut (37-0) vs. Baylor (27-9)
If you have a TV, you know UConn's story by now.
They are two wins away from a second consecutive perfect season. Led by their All-American duo of Maya Moore and the likely top overall pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, Tina Charles, the Huskies couple the game's most dominant offense as well as the game's most dominant defense.
The Huskies have sliced through the tournament field with nary a blip—they have won their four games so far by an average margin of 47 points. They are, by far, the best team in the sport.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey was quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying:
"We will go to work and we will do the best that we can and play extremely hard and hope that Connecticut has the worst game they've ever played in the whole year and we have the best game we've ever played the whole year."
You have to believe that she was only half-joking.
Junior forward Maya Moore, while incredible all year, has been playing at an almost obscene level since the start of the tournament, shooting a ridiculous 64% from the floor.
If you follow Huskies coach Geno Auriemma at all, you know that his least favorite topic of discussion is probably the UConn-Tennessee rivalry.
Well, Baylor made sure that wouldn't happen this year.
Instead, we have the nation's most dominating team facing the nation's most dominating physical force in Baylor's 6'8" C Brittney Griner.
Baylor made a statement early in the tournament by demolishing a solid Georgetown team, a game in which Griner had more blocked shots than Georgetown had made field goals.
They next beat a very good Tennessee team (the top seed in the region) quite handily. Baylor then squeezed into the Final Four after Duke collapsed—Duke was up by nine with less than six minutes to play. In fairness, the very young Lady Bears still had to have the fortitude to capitalize on Duke's collapse, and they did.
Griner doesn't take the court alone though. While her blocked shots and intimidating presence are the key to what is probably the game's second best defense, the key to Baylor's success against UConn will be their guard play.
Will Kelli Griffin be able to handle the unrelenting pressure applied by UConn's guards and be able to get Griner the ball in positions to score? Will Melissa Jones, Baylor's most consistent deep threat, be able to get clean looks at the basket?
Tina Charles has the strength and quickness to fairly neutralize Griner, so the answers to those two questions will determine whether or not this game stays close or becomes another bloodletting.
It is likely fun for people outside of Connecticut to speculate otherwise, but this game should not be close. I fully expect another 20 point margin, and I would be quite surprised if it is closer than that. UConn simply has too many weapons on the offensive side. While not as widely discussed, their defense is actually their calling card. So far this tournament, they are giving up an average of only 40 points per game.
Smitty's official Final Four prediction for your records: UConn faces Stanford for the championship. Feel free to club me with that if I'm proved wrong (won't be the first time).