Matthew Robison | Friday, April 5, 2013
The Irish are back. Notre Dame is now in its third straight Final Four under the tutelage of coach Muffet McGraw and the leadership of All-American senior guard Skylar Diggins. The last two trips ended in heartbreak. Last year, after a heroic finish in the national semifinal by Natalie Novosel, Brittney Griner and Baylor dismantled the Irish. The year before, Texas A&M stole the show. But after what seemed like the depleting departure of the triumvirate of Novosel, Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory, three new stars arose. Freshman guard Jewell Loyd burst onto the scene, averaging 12.5 points and starting all but one game. Junior guard Kayla McBride has turned into a dominant scorer. She’s averaging 15.9 points and has proved her ability to hit shots from anywhere on the floor. Junior forward Natalie Achonwa is one of the best post players in the game, and her post presence down low has improved tremendously. Just as they have been the last two years, all the pieces are in place. There’s really no fitting way for Diggins to end her illustrious career other than finally winning that coveted national title that has eluded her in the last two seasons.
One of the most talented teams in the country, the Huskies have arguably the best pure shooter in the country and a dominant center. Sophomore guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is shooting 49-percent from behind the arc. Junior center Stefanie Dolson is averaging 13.8 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds. Dolson will undoubtedly challenge the post presence of Achonwa, junior forward Ariel Braker and sophomore forward Markisha Wright, as she has all season. Achonwa is Notre Dame’s best post defender, but she has a tendency to pick up early fouls. If she is relegated to the bench early, Dolson has the potential to dominate. Mosqueda-Lewis stretches perimeter defenses with her range, so Notre Dame cannot pack the paint. Notre Dame has beaten Connecticut in all three matchups this season, but winning a fourth will not be easy. Diggins must control tempo, the forwards have to keep Dolson and freshman forward Breanna Stewart off the glass and the Irish have to find a way to disrupt Mosqueda-Lewis.
After shocking No. 1 Baylor in the Sweet 16, Louisville could have become complacent with the historic win. But the Cardinals went on to beat the No. 2 seed Tennessee to earn a berth in New Orleans. Junior guard Shoni Schimmel leads the Cardinals in scoring with 14.4 points per game. If any team in the Final Four has the momentum, it’s Louisville. On the men’s side, the Cardinals were dealt a crushing blow with the horrific injury to sophomore guard Kevin Ware. But they advanced to the Final Four, as did the women. There’s a great deal of pride in Louisville right now, and the Cardinals would like nothing more to top their wins over Baylor and Tennessee with two more and a national title. Coach Jeff Walz has turned the Cardinals into a national program. Still, this is Louisville’s first Final Four trip since 2009 during the heyday of Cardinal great Angel McCoughtry.
The only non-Big East team in the Final Four is California, who lost only to Duke, Stanford and UCLA. Junior forward Gennifer Brandon and senior guard Layshia Clarendon were both named AP All-America honorable mentions Tuesday. Clarendon is averaging 16.4 points per game and is the Golden Bears’ emotional leader. Brandon averages a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds per game. The Bears have a third weapon in sophomore guard Brittany Boyd, who averages 12.6 points. All in all, the Bears are a dangerous team. They’ve proven they can beat any team in the country on any given night. With two scorers who can slash and shoot from the outside and a dominant post player, they can be a nightmare for opposing defenses. They also turn other teams over, creating easy baskets in transition. Should Notre Dame face the Golden Bears on Tuesday in the national championship, the Irish will certainly have their hands full.