Terps, Cardinal join Huskies, Irish

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It was a whirlwind of extreme emotions, as befits a day of last chances for teams to earn their trips to the Women's Final Four.

There was extra emotion, though -- that of a heartbreaking kind. Tuesday afternoon, it was confirmed that Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa's college career was finished because of a knee injury.

The Irish will be at the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year, and they couldn't have had their perfect season so far without their "Ace," as Achonwa is known by her teammates. But now, as the program attempts to win the NCAA title, Notre Dame will have to do it without her.

No. 1 seed Notre Dame will face its fellow ACC team (for this season, anyway) Maryland, a No. 4 seed, in the national semifinals in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday (ESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET). On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 seed and defending champion UConn will meet No. 2 seed Stanford (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday), a matchup we've seen many times before.

The Terrapins are definitely the "surprise" squad in this year's Final Four, even though Maryland won an NCAA title as recently as 2006. That was an unexpected championship, frankly, as young as Maryland was then. But the Terps haven't been back to the Final Four since, and not a lot of folks were expecting them to do so this year.

Consider that Maryland -- which is headed to the Big Ten next season -- lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament to North Carolina (more on the Tar Heels later). Then the Terps went to the wire on their home court in the NCAA's second round against Texas, winning by just five points.

Who was picking the Terps to knock off No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16? About the same number who expected Maryland to beat No. 3 seed Louisville on the Cardinals' home court in the Elite Eight.

Yet Maryland won both those games, and now will face a Notre Dame squad that is without the player who has led the Irish in rebounding (9.8) and ranked second on the team in scoring (20.5) during the NCAA tournament. Maryland gave the unbeaten Irish their closest game this season: an 87-83 Notre Dame victory on Jan. 27 in College Park, Md.

Strangely enough, after coming through the Louisville Regional as the underdog, the Terps now might find themselves knocked out of that underdog role by Notre Dame because of Achonwa's injury.

Speaking of being knocked out, it looked like it might happen to Stanford, too, on its home court at the hands of No. 4 seed North Carolina. But the Tar Heels -- who are led by freshmen and sophomores -- were stopped short 74-65 in a game that was really closer than the final score. It could have been a repeat of 2006, when three ACC teams made the Women's Final Four. But Stanford's surge in the final minutes prevented that scenario.

Now let's bid a not-so-fond farewell to teams' home courts serving as regional sites. After a decade away from this practice, the NCAA returned to it this year, even though most coaches seemed against it. Next season, the NCAA will go back to neutral regional sites. Also returning for 2015 will be the top-16 seeds hosting early-round games, which was the system commonly used until 2002.

All this will mean that teams can earn the advantage of playing at home for the first two rounds, then that advantage rightly will go away for the regionals. It's a much better system.

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