David vs. Goliath.
Barbarella versus the steel-toothed dolls.
The magic of March Madness is watching little Division 1 NCAA programs overtake big, established powerhouses and making powderkegs out of them, watching them explode in their own dust.
On the men's side, no one went down harder than Ohio State and Thad Matta. Their "David" was the third entry into the Kansas juggernaut of school superiority...the Wichita State Huskers. Ouch. Not even Kansas State. Wichita.
And now, they're a Final Four matchup.
In the Women's NCAA, no one fell harder than the #1-seeded Baylor Bears. Last year's defending National Champions--undefeated in 40 games last year, then 32 games in the 2012-13 season. The #1 seed was a lock for the Final Four - and favorited to win a second straight championship - until Griner and her Lady Bears got bounced 82-81 by fifth-seeded Louisville in an NCAA regional semifinal. Done. In the Round of 16.
The key to Baylor's dominance and undefeated seasons was one key weapon--6'8 senior Brittany Griner, a presumed #1 WNBA draft prospect, who had averaged 33 points for the Lady Bears in the fields of 64 and 32 in this year's NCAA's. With Wilt Chamberlin-like speed, dunking ability, and talent, teams as diverse as division rival Texas A&M have tried any number of defenses to contain her run.
Then came "The Claw and One."
As described by the Associated Press on NCAA.com's website, instead of steel-toothed dolls, Louisville coach Jeff Walz put one player in front of Griner and another behind her. Another one of his players lurked near Griner, waiting to strike if all else failed. It worked. Griner boxed in like never before, got nothing but free throws in the first half and got no shots off until 15 minutes into the second half.
By far, Louisville's victory over the Lady Bears was the highlight of the 2013 tournament. But there were other surprises. And sadness. Take Georgia Lady Bulldogs Coach Andy Landers, who holds the distinction of having the most NCAA wins in the tournament (55) without ever having gained a title. Or a trip to the NCAA Final Four.
And now, we're down to the Final Four.
Notre Dame, the #1 seed in the Norfolk regional, earned a third straight trip to the Final Four with an 87-76 win over the #2-seed Duke Blue Devils.After a slow start, senior star and presumed #2 draft pick Skylar Diggins scored 24 points to send the Fighting Irish into a Final Four match-up against their longtime Big East nemesis, the Connecticut Huskies.
Though the Lady Fighting Irish have gone 3-0 against the Huskies this season, SB Nation rightly points out that these wins have been by a total of three points in two regulation games. The third win was a dramatic 96-87 win in three overtimes.
I have a rule when it comes to UConn: NEVER, EVER count Coach Geno Auriemma out in the postseason. This is his team's sixth straight NCAA appearance. No matter where the Huskies have been on the AP polls, (this year, they've fluctuated between #2 and #3) they're a special breed in the postseason. Somehow, whether his team was led by Diana Taurasi, Lindsey Harding, Renee Montgomery or currently, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Stefanie Dolson and Kelly Faris who earned earned AP All-America honors, they have consistently found ways to snatch a steely victory from the jaws of defeat. The steel teeth of these women are scary to watch, and I have seen their determination firsthand. Never underestimate the power of determination. And Auriemma, who also coached the US Women's National Team to a gold medal in the London Olympics, will want to finish out his long season as a winner. A National Championship is the only way Auriemma will be satisfied. And another point: they're due, after three losses.
Though the oddsmakers likely favor Notre Dame, a three-time National Championship runner-up in the last four years and have already beaten UConn three times, there's a fire that Diggins seems to lack in major games. She earned an Honorable Mention in the AP Poll, and that's for a reason. Notre Dame dominated regular-season opponents with a 30-1 record, but in a game of this magnitude, she's been known to draw fouls early, as she did in the game against Duke.
For Louisville, out of the Oklahoma City regional, they had an easier time in an 86-78 win over the #2 Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols, who have been impressive even as they rebuild under Head Coach Holly Warlick, were simply no match for the Louisville squad that built a lead as large as 20 points, led as they have been all season long by the Schimmel sisters, junior guard Shoni and sophomore guard Jude, who are clearly on their way to greater glory as they finish out their season.
“We’re the ugly ducklings that ruined the party,” Louisville Coach Jeff Walz told the New York Times. “No one gave us a chance and we shocked everybody.”
Louisville, whose only Final Four appearance resulted in a loss at the 2009 national championship game to UConn with star Angel McCoughtry, will play the#2 seeded California Golden Bears, out of the Spokane regional, in the Final Four. California, playing in its first-ever Final Four, was the first team since 1988 to come out of the Pac 12 that was not named Stanford or USC. They have done so on the reluctant leadership of Layshia Clarendon, the 5-foot-9 senior combo guard from San Bernardino.
"I've always been pushed into that leadership role reluctantly, but I've learned to embrace it," Clarendon told the San Jose Mercury News, who has started all but nine games in her Cal career. "I've always led with how I play, how hard I go, more of a lead by example kind of person. But I've really had to step it up (vocally)."
Here are my predictions for Sunday's matchups:
Louisville vs. Cal: Louisville 52, Cal, 47
UConn vs. Notre Dame: UConn, 61, Notre Dame, 55
UConn, 55 Louisville 52
Why? Though the teams will separate next season, as the Cardinals will head to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Huskies have already won 12 straight games against the Cardinals. Lucky number 13 will put the icing on the Huskies' ___ national title.