INDIANAPOLIS –– The casual observer may find unusual the declarations of “parity” that ring out when two No. 2 seeds reach the NCAA women’s championship game, as they did Sunday night.
Texas A & M and Notre Dame had already broken brackets by upsetting Baylor and Tennessee, respectively, in the Elite Eight. And then they completely shattered them at Conseco Fieldhouse by putting out Stanford and Connecticut, respectively, considered the favorites to reach the title game, and both in stirring fashion.
No No. 1 seeds remain.
“This is what women’s basketball needs,” Texas A & M coach Gary Blair said after his Aggies stunned Stanford 63-62 in one of the more thrilling Final Four finishes in several years. “It needs games like this to be able to sometimes wake up America, to be able to give us credit when credit is due.”
For the second consecutive game the Fighting Irish, who prevailed over UConn 72-63 despite 36 points from national player of the year Maya Moore, brought down one of the giants of the sport. In ending the Huskies’ bid for a third consective national championship, they might have been even more impressive than in their Elite Eight victory over Tennessee.
In order to get here, the last two teams standing had to beat archrivals who had defeated them three times during the season.
“The key difference was keeping our composure,” said Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins, who turned in a riveting 28-point performance that UConn could not contain. “In the front of our minds were those three losses. So I just wanted to make sure I stayed poised.”
In both games, the winners went right after their opponents’ weaknesses: A & M’s stifling defensive pressure hounded Stanford’s ill-equipped guards all night, although little-used senior reserve Melanie Murphy made a difference for the Cardinal with her ball-handling and defensive plays.
It wasn’t until after she fouled out in final minutes that the Aggies were able to finally erase what had been a 54-44 Stanford lead. The lead changed hands four more times, culminating with a jaw-droppping pass from Sydney Colson to Tyra White for the final margin with 3.3 seconds left. Then Colson grasped Stanford’s desperation heave, as the first upset of the night was in the books.
“While you all were writing, I guarantee you a lot of you already had your story three-quarters of the way written,” Blair said in the post-game press conference. “And now you’re going to have to change it. Okay?”
Notre Dame figured Moore might have another big night in her, but didn’t want any of her teammates to get a hot hand. Because they didn’t, Moore’s sterling career that featured 3,036 points, two NCAA titles and just four losses came to an end.
“She single-handedly tried to will them back into the game,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “But I did think we got everybody else to get out of their game a little bit more to force Maya to have the pressure of carrying the team.”
With a very thin margin for error or foul trouble, it worked. UConn used a six-player rotation most of the season, with only one pure post player, Stefanie Dolson. When she got saddled with foul trouble, picking up her third personal moments into the second half and her fourth with 14 minutes left, the Irish went to work in the paint and on the arc, with Natalie Novosel contributing 22 points.
So for only the fifth time in the last 17 seasons, the national champion will be a team other than UConn or Tennessee.
“Nothing’s a given,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “When you play well, you win. When you don’t, you lose. The two teams that played the best today and the two teams that deserve to be playing Tuesday night are the two teams playing Tuesday night.”