5 Reasons to Watch the Women’s Final Four (No, Really. These Babes Ball Hard.)

Female Final Four-titude.

Female Final Four-titude.

I admit it, I don’t normally follow women’s basketball very closely. (I played college volleyball, and I don’t follow it either. Or soccer, or badminton—like I said, this isn’t a “women’s sports” blog, so don’t hate.) But this is the first year in my memory where the mention of “Final Four” actually needs clarification: men’s…or women’s?

The ladies have compiled quite the quad this year—and in jaw-dropping fashion, including an NCAA record, a sister act, a Final Four first, and the absence of perhaps the best female college player of all time. But these four teams will more than fill the void in New Orleans…

Connecticut
It’s not uncommon for the Huskies to reach the Final Four; but six times in a row? No other team, male or female, has done so—and led by a freshman, no less. Six-four forward Breanna Stewart scored 21 points in UConn’s 83-53 defeat of Kentucky, as well as adding some impressive defense. Fun fact: Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma was actually born in Montella, Italy. But he’s learned U.S. basketball pretty well, having led the Huskies to seven NCAA championships and the U.S. women’s team to gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Notre Dame has beaten the Huskies in all three previous meetings this year—can the Huskies change history tonight? Catch the game at 8:30 ET on ESPN.

California
It took an overtime period and 25 points from senior guard Layshia Clarendon, but Cal topped Georgia 65-62 in the Spokane regional to reach its first Final Four in school history. Clarendon’s composure—and a solid jumpshot—closed a double-digit deficit in the second half. Helping out were sophomore Afure Jemerigbe (14 points, 8 rebounds) and Reshenda Gray’s season-high 11 rebounds off the bench. Cal is the only Pac-12 team besides Stanford to reach the Final Four since 1986. The Bears are coached by Lindsay Gottlieb, just 35, in her second year at the helm.

Cal will meet Louisville at 6:30 ET tonight on ESPN. But Louisville had to slay its own Bears to get there…

Bummed-Out Baylor
Maybe even more shocking than the compound fracture sustained by Louisville guard Kevin Ware Monday afternoon was the Louisville Lady Cards beating the defending champion Baylor Bears, 82-81. Seemingly-untouchable Baylor had won 32 straight games, but 6-8 center Brittney Griner (second-highest scoring player in NCAA history, career records for blocks and dunks) didn’t score until the second half of a highly-physical game with refereeing questioned by an incensed Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who had to be restrained while challenging a call.

Still, Griner was a rare unanimous selection to the Associated Press’ All-America team Tuesday, and only the fifth three-time recipient. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said he would welcome her at a tryout. Whether Cuban is serious or not, it goes to show how serious Griner’s game is.

Notre Dame
They don’t call her “Sky” for nothing. Another unanimous AP All-American, Skylar Diggins found early foul trouble in the Notre Dame-Duke matchup Tuesday, as the Blue Devils controlled the first half. But her stellar second half outside shooting scored 24 points to rally Notre Dame to a 87-76 win and a third straight trip to the Final Four. (The Irish have fallen in both the last two championship games.) Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, and Natalie Achonwa added 18, 17, and 17 respectively—with help from 21 Duke turnovers–as the Fighting Irish (35-1) won a school-record 30 consecutive games.

Louisville
Only once in Division I history have the same school’s men’s and women’s teams won titles in the same year—can Louisville equal Connecticut (2004) this year?

After taking down Baylor, the fifth-seeded Lady Cards (28-8) had to face Tennessee, a perennial tournament threat despite its first season in three decades without legendary head coach Pat Summitt, who retired last year with early onset dementia. Yet Louisville built a 20-point lead and held off a late UT comeback to win 86-78. Shoni Schimmel’s 24 points were a big part, not to mention younger sister Jude’s 15. The siblings grew up on an Indian reservation in Oregon. Though they share the expected family rivalry, the Schimmels hope to share in a Louisville championship.

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