Oregon and coach Kelly Graves are going into the Final Four as the only newcomers, surrounded by three women’s teams that have won multiple national championships.
“Obviously, we’re a little bit different,” Graves said Tuesday. “But those programs and those coaches had to win their first, as well get to their first Final Four. It’s a new experience for us.”
It’s not totally unexpected for the Ducks (33-4), who have won back-to-back Pac-12 regular-season championships and went to the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons.
“I know one of the focuses this year was to get here to a Final Four,” said Graves, in his fifth year at Oregon after 14 seasons at Gonzaga. “We didn’t want to be an Elite Eight program, we wanted to be a Final Four program. I know our players were hungry and really determined to get there. Now that it’s here, we’re certainly excited.”
Led by junior All-American guard Sabrina Ionescu, the Ducks play their first Final Four game Friday against No. 1 overall seed Baylor (35-1).
In the other Final Four game Friday in Tampa, Florida, defending national champion Notre Dame and UConn meet in a national semifinal or championship game for the seventh time since 2011.
“I know we’re the No. 1 overall seed, but I’m not sure we’re the hunted. I think we’re one of four teams that can win it all,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “We happen to be the overall No. 1 seed probably because of the timing of how losses happened late in the year. But we’re just happy to get there, to bring players who have never been there, and realize Oregon is an unbelievably talented team.”
The Lady Bears are back in the Final Four for the first time since completing a 40-0 season in 2012, when they won their second national title.
With big posts Kalani Brown (6-foot-7 senior) and Lauren Cox (6-4 junior), Baylor has won 27 consecutive games since its only loss, at Pac-12 runner-up Stanford before Christmas.
“That game was not going to define our season or how good we were really, but it would give us a little bit of just kind of what we need to work on,” said Mulkey, in her fourth Final Four in 19 seasons as Baylor’s head coach after she won national titles as a player and assistant coach at Louisiana Tech.
If Oregon wins the semifinal, the Ducks would play one of the teams that ended their past two seasons. The Ducks lost 90-52 to UConn after making their first Elite Eight in 2017, then fell 84-74 to Notre Dame last year when they made another regional final.
“The first year against UConn, they destroyed us. We really played no good quarters in that game. We weren’t quite ready for that stage,” Graves said. “We got a little bit better last year.”
This is the 12th consecutive Final Four for the Huskies (35-2), who won six of their record 11 national titles in that span. But this appearance seems to feel a bit different since their most recent championship was in 2016, when they won their fourth in a row.
“It’s odd in a lot of ways. It’s odd because what would be viewed as a magical season at every single school in America except ours,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced.”
UConn had multiple regular-season losses for the first time since 2012-13, the season that started its four consecutive titles. The Huskies had won 126 regular-season games in a row until a 68-57 loss at Baylor in January, a month after a 19-point win at Notre Dame. They also lost at Louisville, but avenged that loss by beating the No. 1 seed in the Albany Regional final.
Before last year’s title for the Fighting Irish (34-3), when they won their last two games on last-second shots by Arike Ogunbowale, they had missed the Final Four two years in a row. That came after a streak of five consecutive Final Fours when Notre Dame was the national runner-up four times. Its other national championship was in 2001.
“I think we’re confident, but I don’t think you ever can look and say, ‘We did it before. We can do it again.’ But you know how tough it’s going to be,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.
“We won each game by a basket. It wasn’t as if we were just intimidating everyone. I think going into this one, it’s different.”
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