Women's Final Four arguably strongest ever

By Arnie Stapleton

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 5:30 p.m. MDT

Baylor center Brittney Griner celebrates with teammates after their 83-68 win over Georgia Tech in an NCAA women's tournament regional semifinal college basketball game, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

DENVER — For the first time since 1989, all four top seeds reached the NCAA women's Final Four.

This year's field of Baylor, Stanford, UConn and Notre Dame is arguably the strongest ever, with all four programs motivated by unfinished business from last season and out to add yet another crown to their crowded trophy case.

"All four of us, I think, pretty much we're the top four teams in the country all year long. I'm not sure if anybody ever fell to fifth," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I think all four teams are probably the most talented teams in the country. So I guess we all achieved our expectations."

Yet, Baylor, behind 6-foot-8 star Brittney Griner and a lineup loaded at every other position, is a prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night.

To become the first team in NCAA hoops history to win 40 games in a season, the Lady Bears will have to get past Stanford, led by superstar sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike, on Sunday and then either UConn or Notre Dame in the title game.

"Whoever wins this tournament this coming weekend will have earned it, because they'll have beaten two of the best teams in college basketball in quite some time," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

Auriemma, whose Huskies played all three of the other semifinalists this season, said the common thread is a dedication to defense and "people that are OK with the spotlight. They're OK with the big moment. They've had enough failure and enough frustration to kind of harden them and toughen them."

"I think all the teams have a little bit of a hunger. There is no defending national champion that's in the field. So I think the same thing is going through everyone's mind at this point."

And that is, why not us?

Only one other time, 23 years ago, did all four No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four, which speaks to the parity in women's basketball.

"I'm kind of glad in a sense because it tells you that women's basketball is growing," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "It tells you that there's parity out there. Back in the '80s, when I played and brackets were released, you pretty much knew what four teams would be in the Final Four.

"Now, because of teams getting better, you are seeing teams even win national championships that weren't No. 1 seeds, including our 2005 championship at Baylor. But you've had a lot of parity since '89 until 2012. And that's a good thing."

This year, however, the top four teams have reached Denver, as expected.

All thrived on high expectations, especially Baylor, which never shied away from the championship chatter.

"Not one time this year have we ever felt pressure, we haven't," Mulkey insisted. "It's just a case of we want to win a national championship. And if we lose it, what have we lost? I mean, we have had a great year.

"And so it wasn't to throw it out there to put pressure on them. These kids, they know they're good. And it was just a case of we didn't think we could hide what people's expectations were of us, and we can't hide the fact that we're older now and we have those expectations, too."

The Lady Bears are much more than just Griner. There's defensive stopper Jordan Madden, who hounds the opponents' best player, Destiny Williams, Na Hayden and Odyssey Sims, one of the best point guards in the country.

This field is full of tradition, coaches who are great tacticians and recruiters and all four teams are loaded with talented and athletic players.

"We don't really get to be an underdog very often, so we're kind of enjoying it," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.

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