Notre Dame had just completed a thorough dismantling of Maryland on Tuesday night in the Raleigh Region final of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament when Fighting Irish Coach Muffet McGraw stepped to the lectern to address reporters.
Top-seeded Notre Dame’s 80-49 triumph over the second-seeded Terrapins secured the program’s fourth berth in the Final Four, and it came with such ease that even McGraw, whose team’s scoring margin of nearly 28 points per game is second in the country, confessed disbelief.
“I thought it was going to be a close game back and forth,” she said. “I thought at the end our leadership and experience would give us the edge. I thought we might get 10 points ahead. I did not envision this.”
Perhaps McGraw should have, given the outcomes of the other three region finals that were played before Notre Dame (34-3), last season’s national runner-up, and Maryland tipped off at PNC Arena. Baylor, Stanford and Connecticut won their Elite Eight games by an average of 15.3 points, underscoring the separation these traditionally robust programs have over the rest of the country in advancing to the first Final Four since 1989 comprising all No. 1 seeds.
Not even mighty Tennessee, which has an NCAA-record eight national championships, could keep pace with the top-ranked Bears (38-0), who moved to their third national semifinals and are bidding for a second NCAA title. Baylor romped, 77-58, over the No. 2 seed from the Des Moines Region in what may have been the final game for iconic Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt.
Immediately following that game on Monday, Stanford (35-1) advanced out of the Fresno Region with an 81-69 win over second-seeded Duke, which had been ranked no lower than ninth nationally during the regular season. The two-time national champion Cardinal is making a fifth straight appearance in the Final Four and 11th overall.
“It does kind of feed into women’s basketball is top heavy, boring, because people want to watch games where you don’t know the outcome,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. “You don’t want 20-point and 30-point games when you’re looking at regional finals and semifinals and things like that. We have some work to do I think to develop the breadth of women’s basketball.”
That means in part having more than a handful of teams in the national conversation during the regular season, which for the principals in this year’s Final Four was all but incidental. Connecticut, Notre Dame, Baylor and Stanford combined to lose eight games and are ranked Nos. 1 through 4 in scoring margin, and none has been challenged in the NCAA tournament.
That Connecticut has the most losses of the teams in this year’s Final Four attests to the strength of a field that may be unmatched in the 30 years of the women’s tournament. The Huskies have won four of their seven national championships by going undefeated, including consecutive seasons without a loss in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Connecticut heads into its 13th Final Four, the second most all-time, and fifth in a row with a 33-4 record. One of its losses came against St. John’s, 57-56, at Gampel Pavilion, ending the Huskies’ home winning streak at 99 games.
“Some people may think that’s a negative, and it takes away from some of the excitement,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. “At the same time, if you win a national championship in women’s basketball, you didn’t sneak into it. You didn’t beat somebody that was lucky to get there.”
All the teams in the Final Four have won at least one national championship, although Connecticut and Baylor are the only two with a title in the last 10 years. Notre Dame’s first and only title came in 2001, and Stanford hasn’t won it all since 1992.
Over the past decade, Maryland and Texas A&M are the only teams other than Baylor to have won their first national championship. The Terrapins haven’t been back to the Final Four since outlasting Duke in overtime, 78-75, to win the 2006 title.
The Aggies, meantime, lost to Maryland, 81-74, on Sunday in the Sweet 16 to prevent them from repeating as national champions.
“I don’t know if I like the word ‘parity’ as much as just let’s have more surprises,” VanDerveer said of her hopes for the future of women’s basketball. “Have more up-and-comers. How do we do that? I don’t know I know the answer to that question. I think the answer is different schools really supporting women’s basketball and growing women’s basketball in their own community, and then it becomes competitive.”