Connecticut and Notre Dame have arrived at the Final Four as expected, both unbeaten and primed for an epic championship game that has been the talk of the sport for two months. Stanford and Maryland are trying to make sure that neither the Huskies nor the Irish becomes the eighth women's team to go undefeated.
For the third time in four years the Huskies, Irish and Cardinal are in the Final Four together. In that span, only Connecticut in 2013 came away with the title. With Notre Dame senior leader Natalie Achonwa out of the Final Four with a torn ACL, UConn goes from being the favorite to the big favorite to win its ninth national championship, breaking a tie with Tennessee for the most all-time.
Maryland (28-6): The Terrapins weren't necessarily expected to reach Nashville, but they are hardly a surprise, either. Still among the top teams in the country all season, Maryland simply flew under the radar in a crowded top of the ACC with Notre Dame and Duke. The Terps failed to beat either one and finished four games out of first place, perhaps pushing the Terps out of the public consciousness. An early 17-point home loss to Connecticut when the Huskies did not have Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a three-game losing streak in the ACC in January and a quarterfinal exit in the ACC tournament didn't help.
In the regionals, Maryland did something twice it hadn't been able to do all season: beat a top-10 team. The Terps rode senior All-American Alyssa Thomas and a defense that was stingy during important stretches, if not entirely locked down, to wins over Tennessee and Louisville. Now, the formula must remain the same as potentially a pair of top-five teams await Maryland. Thomas will have to be exceptional and her surrounding youth -- such as freshmen guards Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough -- can't play young.
All four coaches in this Final Four have championship rings, but other than Geno Auriemma, of course, Brenda Frese has the most recent title. It came in 2006, the last time the Terps reached the Final Four. That team had young guards who blossomed at the right time and was a dominant rebounding club. That's exactly what Frese hopes she has in Nashville once again.
Notre Dame (36-0): Prior to Monday night, all the talk surrounding the Irish was about their fluid, impossible-to-stop, weapon-rich offense, their dominance in the program's inaugural season in the rugged ACC, and the fact after losing Skylar Diggins they somehow got better.
Since Monday, that buzz has shifted to the devastating ACL injury to Achonwa and how Notre Dame might adjust at the most important time of the year without its on- and off-the-court leader. Achonwa isn't just a skilled post player. She is a director in Muffet McGraw's offense. Achonwa knows where everyone belongs, told her teammates what they should be doing when needed and was integral in the offense's often-brilliant execution. Achonwa is also the club's best and primary interior defender.