As we approach Final Four weekend in the greatest postseason in sports — the NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments — most of the sports world’s collective attention will be focused on New Orleans.
But in the Mile High city the women’s championship provides ample storylines for those who will inevitably tire of hearing about the “Bluegrass Armageddon” matchup of Louisville and Kentucky in men’s hoops. I’ll outline a few here.
Let’s start with overall No. 1-seed Baylor.
Junior center Brittney Griner, a 6’ 8” beast of a human, has already made SportsCenter after each of the Lady Bears’ games this postseason. Griner has dunked on opponents twice in the tournament — the first and second such slams since Candance Parker threw down in 2006 for Tennessee.
On Monday, as time ran out in the Elite Eight game between Parker’s former Lady Volunteers and Griner’s Baylor squad, there was a minor brawl on the court and Griner was ejected for leaving the bench area — along with two teammates. This ejection came more than two years after Griner was thrown out of a game against Texas Tech for punching Jordan Barncastle in the face. The incident sparked controversy and surrounded Griner with negative press — which seems to have fueled her competitive fire in the two seasons since.
Griner is a lightning rod for both praise and criticism. Her athleticism and effort have been questioned by some analysts and fans — as has her gender. If you type “Brittney Griner” into Google’s search bar, the first auto-filled suggestion is “Brittney Griner a boy,” followed by “Brittney Griner punch.” Clearly, she is not the same kind of superstar as fellow All-American Elena Delle Donne of the Fightin’ Blue Hens of Delaware, whose physical beauty almost matches that of her name.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey has a personality nearly as big as Griner. Mulkey’s trademark white blouse and black heels belie a fiery sideline demeanor and her Louisiana-bred Southern drawl often gives way to pleas for more ball movement. (Sidenote: It’s almost worth watching Baylor play just to witness the 5’ 4” Mulkey deliver instructions to Griner, nearly a foot-and-a-half taller, on the sidelines).
Baylor will play fellow No. 1-seed Stanford in the Final Four on Saturday.
The Cardinal have their own impressive, talented, and tall forward in senior Nneka Ogwumike. Before their matchup against Duke on Monday night, Blue Devils head coach Joanne McCallie was asked who would guard Ogwumike. With a sly smile on her lips, she said, “Does it really matter?” She’s that good.
The 6’ 2” Ogwumike has a penchant for pulling out her best performances on the biggest stages. She has scored a combined 68 points in the Cardinal’s past two games alone, against No. 5-seed South Carolina and No. 2-seed Duke. What can she do against the biggest player in women’s basketball?
A Griner-Ogwumike showdown on Sunday will feature a combined 12’ 10” of female athletic prowess — an Amazonian-esque battle for rebounds and low-post layups.
Another reason to watch? ESPN will also almost assuredly show the now-famous Youtube video featuring Ogwumike and her teammate and sister Chiney, called “Nerd City Kids.” The music video, a parody of “Rack City” by Tyga, pokes fun at Stanford’s academic standards and gained several thousand hits when it was featured on the Women’s Basketball Selection Special in early March. (Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4IxdTLFzyI)
If you like a good ol’ technical chess match of a basketball game, then tune in for the Elite Eight matchup between No. 1-seed Notre Dame and No. 2-seed Maryland on Tuesday night.
The Fighting Irish are guard-heavy, short, and silky smooth from the perimeter.
The Terrapins, on the other hand, are forward-heavy, tall, and can pound inside the paint.
Head coaches Muffett McGraw and Brenda Frese will be frustrated all night as they try to make the most of unfavorable matchups between players with completely contrasting physical attributes and playing styles.
Skylar Diggins, the only women’s basketball player with a spotlight that rivals Griner’s, leads the Irish attack and looks to rebound from a national championship loss last year that stung her hard. Playing in her home state of Indiana against Texas A&M, Diggins and the Irish led most of the game and were tied with the Aggies with 3:56 remaining, before Danielle Adams took over. After the game Diggins half-ran, head down, back to the locker room and did not shake the Aggies’ hands with her teammates. She appeared in postgame interviews with tears in her eyes and later that night, with a touch of understatement, she tweeted, “Tough loss tonight.”
Like Griner’s haters who have sparked a fire within her, that loss has seemingly motivated Diggins to take over games and take the Irish back to the national championship again. For Diggins, though, it seems to be an internal battle to prove to herself that she is as good as she has always been told she is. She is entirely self-motivated — a quality which dragged her to her high school gym each morning at 6am when she played for South Bend Washington. Can that fire overcome the Terrapin’s physical advantage on Tuesday?
In the other Elite Eight contest on Tuesday night, perennial contender and No. 1-seed Connecticut faces upstart No. 2-seed Kentucky in Kingston, Rhode Island.
In an interesting coincidence, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma is probably closest in personality to Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari. The two are incredibly hard on their players, both on and off the court. Both are perfectionists of the highest degree and both have experienced monumental success and attract top-level recruits year after year. Both have seen their fair share of controversy, too.
The Huskies of Connecticut are trying to reach their fifth Final Four in the past five years. Meanwhile in Lexington, all eyes are already focused on Saturday and the matchup with in-state rival Louisville in the men’s tournament. A women’s basketball Final Four berth would likely raise very few eyebrows (er… unibrows).
Expect Auriemma to dominate the Wildcats even without Maya Moore.
So now, if you find the time to pull yourself away from Doug Gottlieb & Co. for a few minutes this week, you’ll know what to watch for. Maybe Peyton Manning will even make an appearance when the Final Four arrives in his new hometown — now there’s some real star power.
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