Matching the excitement of last year’s unreal Final Four was always going to be a difficult task, but the four teams in Tampa this weekend have done an admirable job of imitation so far. Both semifinal games on Friday night were either tied or within a point in the final minute of regulation.
In the first game on Friday night, Baylor’s interior attack and stout defense helped the Bears outlast Oregon’s 3-point barrage to reach their first title game since 2012. There they’ll face Notre Dame, who, led by Arike Ogunbowale, overcame a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take down their old rivals, UConn, and get back to the championship for the second straight season.
Two No. 1 seeds, two women’s basketball powerhouses with two titles apiece, two legendary coaches and stars up and down each roster. The title game between Baylor and Notre Dame — a rematch of the 2012 edition, which the Bears dominated — has everything you could hope for. Sunday night is going to be all sorts of fun.
(1) Notre Dame vs. (1) Baylor
When: Sunday at 6 p.m.
Where: Amalie Arena — Tampa, Florida
Notre Dame: Midway through the fourth quarter of Friday night’s second semifinal game, Notre Dame’s season, and chance to repeat, was on the ropes. Katie Lou Samuelson was heating up, and UConn ran out to a nine-point lead. From that point, the Irish buckled down and closed the game on a 26-12 run led by who else but Arike Ogunbowale. Last year’s Final Four hero scored 14 of her 21 second-half points in the fourth quarter to will Notre Dame back to the title game. Overshadowed at times this season by the rise of her backcourt partner, Jackie Young, Ogunbowale gave everyone a reminder of her greatness and sense of the moment.
But as impressive as Ogunbowale was in the second half, Notre Dame wouldn’t have won without the strong play of their frontcourt, Jess Shepard and Brianna Turner. That duo combined for 35 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists and five blocks in the victory. And they might have to play even better — if that’s possible — on Sunday, when they’ll go up against the nation’s premier frontcourt. How well Shepard and Turner can hold their own against Baylor’s paint attack could decide the game.
Baylor: All season long, Baylor has been the nation’s most dominant and consistent team. They’re 36-1, with their only loss coming on the road to Stanford, and perhaps more impressively, 30 of their wins have come by double digits. It’s been a season reminiscent of their 2012 campaign, when they went a perfect 40-0, and crushed Notre Dame in the title game. So it’s fitting that they’ll meet the Irish for the championship again, with each team vying for their third title.
Like Notre Dame, Baylor just barely got here though, sneaking past an electric Oregon squad that provided a tricky style matchup with their perimeter skills and shooting. As it has all season long, however, Baylor’s frontcourt proved to be too much. Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox — both All-Americans — combined for 43 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks while just generally controlling the game. That frontcourt matchup of Brown and Cox vs. Shepard and Turner could decide the game, but another member of Baylor’s dynamite defense will be key as well. Didi Richards was key in limiting Sabrina Ionescu to just 18 points on 6-of-24 shooting on Friday night, and will have another tough matchup on Sunday, whether she guards Jackie Young or Ogunbowale.