Nashville, Tenn. • All the talk of Stanford feeling like a junior varsity team crashing the Final Four or being an extra at the beauty pageant is just rhetoric to UConn coach Geno Auriemma. Motivational chatter he says no team here needs since each has won a championship.
Auriemma noted Saturday he’s never won any pageant.
Nope, he and his Connecticut Huskies just win titles — and they’re back chasing perfection again. They are two wins from making history: The first program in the women’s game with nine national titles.
“I think this team thinks they can win anywhere, anytime against anybody,” Auriemma said.
Before UConn (38-0) can think of a possible undefeated showdown with Notre Dame in the title game, however, the Huskies must get past Stanford Sunday night in one national semifinal.
Stanford is back at the Final Four for the sixth time in seven years. Stanford has two titles to its credit, though the Cardinal have been shut out in eight previous Final Four berths over the past 20 years. Compare that to UConn, which has won all its titles on 13 trips in that same span.
Auriemma said every team here can win a national title, which is the beauty of the Final Four.
“All you got to do is play really well two nights, and you can win a national championship,” Auriemma said. “And all four teams that are here are capable of doing that because they’ve already done that. So I don’t think they should feel like they’re a JV team. I don’t think they should anybody should feel like they’re the extras at the Miss America pageant.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer credits the media wanting the story of two undefeated teams playing for a title, and she makes no apologies for wanting to muck that up.
“If we’re going to be someone’s hors d’oeuvre, we’re not going to get swallowed easily,” VanDerveer said. “We’re going to work really hard to play the best game we can, and we definitely talk about it.”
The Huskies have won six of the past seven against Stanford, including the last tournament meeting in the 2010 title game. They also won Nov. 11 in Storrs by 19.
The defending national champion has won 44 straight overall, and UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart was named The Associated Press’ player of the year Saturday. Stewart is scoring a team-high 19.4 points a game and much more confident in her second Final Four.
“I’ve been here before, but I still want to accomplish the same task,” Stewart said.
All five starters score in double figures, and the Huskies play defense just as well. They hold opponents to 47.3 points a game and 30.7 percent shooting. Junior Kiah Stokes said Auriemma boosts their confidence by putting them in can’t win situations like playing five on nine. Then there’s that crucial experience as a program with this their seventh straight Final Four.
“It’s even harder now because people don’t want us to win again,” Stokes said. “It’s exciting for us, and we’re looking forward to it. It takes a lot of work. We know it will take even more work than last year.”
Stanford last upset UConn in the NCAA tournament in the 2008 national semifinal, a game VanDerveer has mentioned to her players noting those Huskies had the likes of Tina Charles and Maya Moore.
“They have a very talented team this year, but we just have to play well,” VanDerveer said.
Stanford (33-3) has won four straight since a loss in the Pac-12 tournament.
All-American Chiney Ogwumike has much more help during the NCAA tournament than in that early loss at UConn. Point guard Amber Orrange, freshman guard Lili Thompson and Mikaela Ruef have kept opposing defenses from collapsing around the senior forward.
“We’re not intimidated,” Ogwumike said. “We’re excited. We just want to play our game. I think no matter the outcome, if we play Stanford basketball, we’ll be happy. But, granted, we’ll be happier if we win, obviously, and that’s what we’re working toward.”
Those aren’t just more words. The Cardinal finished practice with a bit of dancing to make sure they stay loose and have fun.
Said Ruef, “That’s what we’re trying to do on this trip.”
Maryland embraces underdog role
Brenda Frese and her Maryland Terrapins feel like uninvited guests at the Final Four.
And that’s fine with the Terrapins coach.
Back in the national semifinals for the first time since winning the championship in 2006, Maryland will try to spoil an unprecedented title game when the Terrapins face undefeated Notre Dame on Sunday night. Stanford plays unbeaten UConn in the other semifinal.
“Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA pageant,” Frese quipped. “Our job is to be able to crash the party.”
While fourth-seeded Maryland (28-6) surprised many by reaching the Final Four, Notre Dame has been on a roll all season. The Irish are two wins away from the first undefeated season in school history and a second national championship. Coach Muffet McGraw said her team tries to focus on the next game and not making history, which has helped them remain perfect this season.
“It’s been easy,” McGraw said of keeping her team focused. “The easiest thing that we’ve had to do this year. Take it one game at a time. the seniors have done a great job, making sure nobody is looking ahead. We’ve been here before and we know we have a lot of work to do.
“You can’t get to a national championship till you win the first game.”
The Irish (36-0) are still dealing with the loss of senior leader Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor on Monday night. Achonwa said the team dealt with her injury well and is concentrating on the upcoming game.
“I think that we’re just focusing on playing Maryland. We’re focusing on what are we going to do offensively and defensively right now it happened,” she said. “I tore my ACL. It happened and I think we’re looking beyond that, and what we’re going to do to win tomorrow.”
Achonwa was on the sidelines during the team’s open practice leaning on her crutches. She was shouting encouraging words to her teammates and talking to freshman Taya Reimer, who will replace her in the starting lineup.
“Only advice I can give her is be Taya Reimer,” Achonwa said. “She doesn’t have to be me. At the end of the day, she came to Notre Dame for a reason. Coach McGraw recruited her because she’s a great basketball player and a great person. She just needs to go out and do that.”
Even without their senior leader, the Irish have an experience advantage over the Terrapins having advanced to the Final Four the last four years. They are still looking for their first title since 2001.
“And I think for us, you know, it’s more of a business trip,” McGraw said. “And we’re enjoying it and I think we’ve enjoyed all the moments that we’ve had this year, but I think there’s so many distractions today especially with the open practice, autograph signings and all those things, that you need to make sure you’re focused on the task at hand.”
The two teams met back in January with the Irish coming away with an 87-83 victory. Notre Dame had a 22-point lead in that game before the Terrapins rallied to take the lead in the second half before falling.
Both sides feel that the game becoming tight could benefit them.
“It really does,” McGraw said. “Watching film, you get to see them at their best. That’s what you need. Going into a game like this, you want to see what they do well. Alyssa Thomas was unstoppable. She was phenomenal in the second half. She rebounded, she scored, she did everything she wanted to do.”
Thomas remembered how her team got off to a rough beginning.
“We did not come out to a good start,” the senior All-American said. “ Once we settled down, we were able to get back into the game.”
Thomas was thrilled to finally make the Final Four.
“I think the biggest thing is to experience this for my teammates,” she said. “I’ve been saying it for the longest time. I just want them to be here with me. I’m really excited that, finally get to be on the playing side of the Final Four.”
Stewart, McGraw win AP awards
Breanna Stewart picked up right where she left off as a freshman. Connecticut’s versatile star has had a stellar sophomore year.
The 6-foot-4 guard/forward earned The Associated Press Player of the Year award Saturday, becoming just the third sophomore to achieve the honor. Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw was selected coach of the year for the second straight season.
The pair accepted their awards in front of a standing room only crowd that included the entire UConn and Notre Dame teams as well as Stewart’s family.
“It’s obviously a huge deal and I think the fact that being able to be named player of the year is awesome and I think it just shows how hard I’ve worked this season and the offseason,” Stewart said. “But it doesn’t compare to what could happen this weekend. I think this is nice, but it’s a team game and we want to win a national championship.”
Stewart, a unanimous All-American, got 20 votes from the 36-member national media panel that selects the weekly Top 25. Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike received eight votes while Baylor’s Odyssey Sims had six. Kayla McBride of Notre Dame received the other two votes.
Stewart joined former UConn star Maya Moore and Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris as the only sophomores to win the award. Stewart helped the Huskies win the national championship as a freshman and has been a major reason why the Huskies are undefeated this season.
“I just think she grew up,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of his young star. “She’s a year older it’s not easy to be that good when you’re that young and haven’t played a lot of college basketball. She has year’s more experience as to what it takes to go through a college basketball season and knowing her, I think she is going to get better and better each day each week and each month. I’m really happy for her.”
Like UConn, McGraw’s Irish squad hasn’t lost either, winning their first 36 games this season.
McGraw is only the second coach ever to win the award in consecutive years, joining Auriemma. West Virginia’s Mike Carey was second with eight votes. Auriemma was third and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley was fourth.
McGraw also was honored with the award in 2001. She didn’t know until she got on the team bus to head to the arena that the Irish would be coming to watch the ceremony.
“She has been the consistent piece at Notre Dame,” McBride said, “and is a big reason why we are where we are.”
Even McGraw, who is in her 27th season at the school, was surprised at the success her team has had this season. Joining a new conference and graduating Skylar Diggins left a few questions for Notre Dame. With McGraw at the helm, they answered every one of them.
“Going undefeated was not on the top of our goals for the season with what we lost,” said the 58-year-old McGraw. “We had a lot of good pieces back, but we lost Skylar. It wasn’t until we had the road wins over Tennessee, Maryland and Duke that I thought, wow we could have something really special here.”
With four starters back, including Stewart, UConn was a heavy preseason favorite to defend its title. Stewart is a major reason why they are still unbeaten. She lead the Huskies in scoring, averaging 19.4 points to go along with 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
She is the eighth different Connecticut player to be selected as player of the year since the award began in 1995. Stewart will have her name hang high above the Gampel Pavilion court in Storrs, Conn., with past winners Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Diana Taurasi, Jennifer Rizzotti, Tina Charles, Moore, and Sue Bird.
Rutgers beats UTEP 56-54 for WNIT title
Tyler Scaife went coast-to-coast and scores with 2 seconds left to give Rutgers the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship with a 56-54 win over UTEP on Saturday in El Paso, Texas.
Rutgers (28-9), which led 30-16 at the half, withstood a furious second-half rally by UTEP (29-8), which tied it at 54 with 7 seconds to play on a putback by Chrishauna Parker.
Scaife took the inbounds pass and raced downcourt to score the winning points to quiet UTEP’s home sellout crowd of 12,222.
“I just knew we had to get down the floor and score,” said Scaife, a freshman who was named the tournament MVP. “I’m happy it went in.
“I’m just happy we finished the season off like this.”
Rutgers Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, who won her 929th game, said her team did well to win in a tough environment -- and for the third straight time on the road.
“First of all, I think give credit to UTEP,” she said. “Great crowd, outstanding team and a great coaching job. They really truly are an outstanding team. I think that, easily, UTEP could’ve been an NCAA (tournament) team.
“But what’s most important -- I thought that we probably got the greatest experience of them all, because I don’t think it could be rougher than that. I know it can’t be rougher than that in the Final Four.”
Rutgers was led by Kahleah Cooper and Scaife, who each finished with 18 points, and Briyona Canty with 12. UTEP got 16 points from Kristine Vitola and 11 from Jenzel Nash.
Both teams were playing in the 64-team WNIT for the first time and both entered on a five-game tournament win streak. Yet despite outscoring the Knights 28-26 in the second half, it was UTEP that came up one play short.
“The game was great. There are great kids on that team,” UTEP coach Keitha Adams said. “It stings because we were so close.”
UTEP trailed by 18 points early in the second half before runs of 8-2 and 12-2 helped it cut the Rutgers lead to 39-36. The Miners then took their first lead since 5-2 when Parker’s bucket gave them a 50-48 lead with 5:06 to go.
However, Rutgers was able to answer the surge, getting a jumper and two free throws from Scaife and a layup from Rachel Hollivay to go ahead 54-50 with 1:15 to play.
Vitola sank two free throws with 1:01 to go to make it 54-52, and both teams exchanged misses from the line before Parker’s rebound and putback tied it with 8 seconds to go.
Copper, who also was named to the all-tournament team, said the Scarlet Knights were not fazed by the hostile crowd. That showed late, when Rutgers held the Miners without a basket from the 5:06 mark to the final 8 seconds.
“We’ve played in crowds like this,” she said. “We played at Louisville, we played at Connecticut. We were prepared for this. So it was no different than any other time.”
The Miners, who finished with 19 turnovers, came up one play short. Twice they suffered shot-clock violations in the final 3 minutes, and their defense froze in the final seconds.
“It wasn’t just the last 6 seconds,” Vitola said. “It was the whole game.”
Maryland (28-6) vs. Notre Dame (36-0)
P Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN
UConn (38-0) vs. Stanford (33-3)
P Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN