by Cub Buenning | @cubbuenning
The Women’s Final Four comes to the Mile High City of Denver with a great lineup of teams including Stanford, UConn, Notre Dame and the favorites from Baylor. All four #1 seeds have made it to Denver to set up the best possible national semifinal. Star wattage is in surplus, as not only is Baylor’s Brittney Griner on display, but also the Ogwumike sisters from Stanford and the nation’s best guard in ND’s Skylar Diggins.
The Big East is the first on deck in the double-header. Conference rivals Notre Dame and Connecticut reunited for the fourth time already this season; a rematch from last year’s Final Four, won by Notre Dame.
-An hour before tip and the crowd outside the Pepsi Center is pretty active. Good nearby bar crowd and the visiting fan bases are all well represented. It surely helps that the weather the past week has been in the high70s/low 80s in late March.
-The crowd at the arena is already pretty robust and I would be surprised if there were any open seats once the action commences.
-I’m seated right in front of the UConn section and the on-court arrival of Huskies’ Head Coach Geno Auriemma draws a big applause. It is quickly drawn out by the large Notre Dame contingency that cheers for the Fighting Irish’s Muffet McGraw. There are a lot of green in the sections across from me. The famous “LET’S GO IRISH” chant ensues.
-Oddly enough, the one team here in Denver without a true star is the now-legendary team from Storrs, Connecticut. Coach Geno has possibly his most well-rounded team in years and with a defense-first outfit, this might be one of his best coaching jobs in his 27 years as the Huskies’ boss.
-The Fighting Irish have the nation’s best backcourt with Diggins, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory. They have put their stamp on this game early as ND jumps out to a 9-4 advantage. On the other end, though, ND is the smallest team here in Denver and the Huskies quickly jump back behind the strength and size of 6-5 center Stefanie Colson.
-This game is off to a great start with both team showing no rust or anxiety. At the under-16 timeout, UConn enjoys a 13-11 advantage. Pretty much a full house by now, too.
-The pace continues to be pushed with the action, the epitome of “back and forth.” No slowdown on either team at this point. Nor is there any quarter being given or taken as the familiarity of these two teams is producing a very physical contest.
-Like I mentioned, I am sitting in front of the UConn section. To put it bluntly, they are extremely vocal when calls don’t go their way.
-At the under-8 timeout, this contest has delivered on every level with the Huskies holding a slim 26-22 advantage. Still waiting for Diggins to take control of this one.
-Colson is really taking advantage of the thin front line for ND.
-On cue, @SkyDigg4 hits back-to-back jumpers and causes two turnover on the other end. Just two minutes left in the first-half and it’s a three-point UConn lead.
-Under one minute in the first half and Geno might be screaming at the officials louder than the biased fan base behind me. Scratch that. Not even close.
-Five seconds later, Diggins is called for a charge. Well played, Geno. Well played.
-Halftime in Denver and UConn is winning the toughness battle and therefore the game, 36-33. I have said it plenty before, but if you have issues with what you are seeing; you just might not like basketball.
-Notre Dame wrangles back the lead in the first few ticks of the second half. This game is getting beyond physical and/or chippy. Familiarity breeds contempt, right? Seriously regardless of level or gender, this is one of the scrappiest games I’ve seen. Ever.
-Not one to wait for the TV timeout, Geno gets one early as he sees his team on the bad end of a 10-3 run to start the half.
-The consistent 3-point cushion enjoyed by UConn in the first half has become the friend of Notre Dame in the game’s second 20 minutes.
-At the under 12 timeout, it’s business as usual in this slugfest as the Fighting Irish cling to a 51-49 lead.
-The jumbotron just did a small piece on Diggins during the timeout. UConn fans weren’t the most complimentary. If the South Bend-native Diggins had decided to matriculate in Storrs they would be on their collective feet going crazy.
-The Huskies are struggling a bit in their half-court execution.
-There are some young broadcasters right in front of me calling the game for their school’s radio station. I couldn’t tell for which school they were with….Until now. A UConn basket and subsequent fist-pumps reveals their true identity.
-Skylar Diggins might be the most complete point guard I have seen in the Women’s game since Sue Bird. Quick hands, composure and a lethal pull-up jumper. I’d take her on my team every single night.
-Just when the Fighting Irish seem prepared to pull away, the size and experience of UConn “wills” them a basket. With seven left, it’s 58-55 ND.
-A smooth Diggins pull-up 18-footer stretches the lead to 6 with under four minutes to play. Great time to have a coach like Geno in the huddle.
-One minute mark sees the ND advantage trimmed to just a bucket at 65-63. A great time to have an All-American point guard like Diggins.
-UConn’s Kelly Faris finds herself at the free-throw line with a chance to knot the game. 45 seconds, two Faris shots and it’s tied!
-Novosel rims out a jumper with 30 left; back to back turnovers on each team and again it’s Faris driving and getting to the charity stripe. Twelve seconds remain and the junior guards hit two, AGAIN! UConn by two.
-Diggins misses the runner, but it is put back by Mallory! UConn can’t get off a shot and it’s going to OVERTIME!!! Whew!
-UConn draws first blood with a 3-pointer by Bria Hartley.
-Not to be outdone, Diggins nails one of her own.
-A stop and a Mallory long-bomb gives the Irish the lead back.
-Mallory backed that bucket up with another 3 after Diggins made an improbable block on the other end.
-Mallory has been largely quiet for most of this game, but she has been the difference in the extra stanza.
-Defense and timely shooting salting away the win for Notre Dame.
-FINAL: Notre Dame wins 83-75
-Postgame Geno on the Diggins’ blockshot and assist on the other end. “Game turns on a great play by a great player.”
-Diggins view on that play after the game, “I told Brit (Mallory) that I would keep looking for her and to keep being ready to shoot. I had been passive and I just kept trying to push it. Our defense led to our offense and that got that our momentum going.”
-More gems from a very distraught Geno, “We’re just not that good offensively. You just can’t give them that many chances. They’re just that good.”
-Hanging in the postgame pressers has led to missing the start of the Baylor/Stanford nightcap. TIME TO ROLL BACK OUT!
FIRST PLAY OUT: A little sisterly intuition as Chiney Ogqumike finds her sister, Neka for a backdoor cut lay-up.
-Stanford appears to roll a bit deeper than the first two teams who only combined to play 13 all night. This one is looking very similar to the previous game with Baylor holding an early 12-11 advantage at the under-12 mark.
-Totally forgot about the Stanford band and the infamous tree. First timeout, they bust into Green Day’s Welcome to Paradise complete with their usual foolish nature. Might have to move to the other end of the arena to check them out first-hand.
-The pace that Stanford is playing with is making it a bit difficult for Baylor to get into their half-court sets.
-Stanford presents the biggest challenge for Baylor in this Final Four with their mix of depth and size. They bring different faces and major size at Brittney Griner and crew.
-The Ogqumike sisters are a treat to watch in person—active, tall, long and loads of game to boot. They are going to make it tough on Baylor all night. Eight left in the first half and it’s all knotted up at 16.
-The group from UConn behind me are still present and have gotten considerably more sedated. Overtime losses in the Final Four will do that to you.
-Baylor is being real passive in the first half in regards to feeding the ball into Griner. She is not as involved as she needs to be. A quiet middle part of the half leads to a 23-21 advantage at the under-4 break. There is certainly not the excitement of the last hour, at least not yet.
-Stanford is taking one of their long defenders and having her slack of her assignment to pinch down onto Griner. And it’s working.
-Baylor is starting to turn up the defensive pressure and it’s having an effect on Stanford’s crispness on offense.
-Great seeing older sister, Neka Ogwumike going at her younger sister Chiney after a missed pass. Some things sisters can get away with that simple teammates might not be able to.
-Choppy end to the half equals a low-scoring 20 minutes of basketball. Baylor leads 25-23.
-No dinner provided by the NCAA. What, they want me to go up and get a stadium dog?
-I have two young daughters (both parents played college ball) that are going to be tall and athletic. I am going to have them watch tapes of the Ogwumike sisters from now until they attend Stanford, themselves. I just love how they move and attack every possession on the court.
-Stanford is more than content to let that “unguarded” Baylor player shoot wide-open shots. Twice in a row that player was Terran Condrey, who hit both of them.
-Battle of the Player of the Year candidates as Neka takes it directly at Griner for the bucket. Things are starting to heat up.
-At the under-16, all knotted up at 31. Is there any way that this game can end like the first contest tonight.
-Stanford’s 6-3 Joslyn Tinkle is from Missoula, Montana of all places! Wait, Tinkle? That took me too long to realize that she must be the daughter of U of Montana’s Head Coach Wayne Tinkle. Looks just like her dad, too.
-Stanford is really stagnant on offense and All-American big sis, Neka goes right back at Griner. Draws the third foul on the 6-8 center for Baylor.
-Baylor is being real opportunistic on offense. Not really running good sets, but finding a way to get easy buckets, which leads to a 38-32 lead five minutes into the second half.
-Chiney Ogwumike goes to the bench with a bit of blood (and three fouls) and the team immediately cannot make stops on defense. I guess it stands to reason, as the younger sis was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Down 40-32, prompts Cardinal Head Tara VanDerveer to reinsert the sophomore.
-Griner with two startling plays in a row: One an impressive one-handed defensive board in traffic, followed by a baseline turn-around jumper over two 6-3 defenders.
-Love the conversations between Baylor Head, Kim Mulkey and her point guard Oddysey Sims. Insight from one floor general to another.
-With 9 left, Stanford is in trouble, trailing by 10 and Chiney on the bench with four fouls.
-From the broken record department: Pep bands v. in-house DJ? Landslide winner for the horns and drums. The Baylor band proves my point with some Word Up by Cameo. Respect. Suddenly the jumbotron shows Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III , getting his groove on.
-A bad call on a spin move from Baylor’s Destiny Williams garners Chiney her fifth foul with still 8 minutes left on the clock. That just might be the end for Stanford. Neka might need to go off to keep them in this game.
-Stanford is fighting to stay in this game. With five minutes left, they have stayed afloat and trail by eight.
-Big sis Neka is saddled with her fourth foul and the team down six with four minutes remaining. No real decision here for VanDerveer here. Gotta ride with your big dogs at this point in the season.
-Sims buries a 3-pointer at the 2:30 mark to stretch it back to 10. Stanford is in real trouble. The sophomore point guard drives and scores on the next possession.
-This game is salted away with defense and free throws.
-Notre Dame is going to be really challenged to defend Griner’s size on Tuesday night. While the Player of the Year was not dominant tonight, she needs to have a big game to bring the title back to Waco.
FINAL: Baylor 59-47 over Stanford.
See you all on Tuesday for the Final!