By JOHN ALTAVILLA, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
7:19 PM EDT, April 2, 2014
There has been a certain obviousness associated with the women's Final Four, almost as if a Notre Dame-UConn national championship game had been etched on a tablet Moses forgot to bring down from Mount Sinai.
As you might imagine, this does not make Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer very happy.
"I think some people resent it, at least a little bit," she said Wednesday. "Why have the NCAA Tournament if [the result] is inevitable. We definitely want to be party-crashers."
And thanks to the ultimate bracketologist, the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the Cardinal will have its chance Sunday in the first national semifinal game at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Truth is, Geno Auriemma isn't too crazy about the notion that the Huskies (38-0) and Irish (36-0) are destined to meet in the first battle of unbeatens in a championship game in NCAA Division I history.
"I've not bought into any of that," Auriemma said. "I kind of don't like when you have a sense of you're disrespecting people, and I wouldn't want either Maryland or Stanford to feel like we're just there as filler for the Notre Dame-Connecticut big thing, because I've been there, I've seen it, and I don't like it.
"So we're just preparing as we would for anything else. I know it's a great story, and I know everybody loves story lines, and in today's day and age God forbid if you don't have a story line, we'll just create one."
"But I caution everybody, there's two other teams good enough to win a national championship, so let's not write that story just yet."
The unblemished season that has carried the UConn women to their seventh consecutive Final Four experienced two critical moments, in the first two weeks, that set it on its course.
Auriemma said both took place in games against opponents that join the Huskies in Nashville.
The first came in the second game this season against Stanford. After opening the season with an 89-34 win over Hartford, the Huskies played the Cardinal at the XL Center.
"Kaleena [Mosqueda-Lewis] got hurt and couldn't play the entire second half," Auriemma said of his junior forward, who sustained a compressed ulnar nerve in her elbow in a fall under the basket. "We got some great contributions from the bench that night and beat a very good team (76-57)."
That night, Morgan Tuck scored 11 points and Kiah Stokes added 10 points and 13 rebounds after Mosqueda-Lewis, who had nine points in the first half, left the game early in the second half.
After the game, Tuck had the first of two knee surgeries. A short time later, Mosqueda-Lewis' diagnosis placed her in a tenuous situation. And that weekend the Huskies were heading to Maryland to open a two-game trip that would end at Penn State.
"We played in front of huge crowd, against another great team, and received contributions from off the bench again," Auriemma said. "I think those games let everyone else on our team know that it didn't matter if we didn't have some players. We were capable. Those two games showed us an awful lot."
Four months later, the lessons about perseverance have been absorbed and memorized and will be required to carry them through one more weekend.
On Sunday, in the second game of the semifinal doubleheader, they play the Cardinal for the fifth time in the Final Four since 1995.
UConn has won five of the past six meetings since the Cardinal eliminated it in the 2008 national semifinals in Tampa, Fla. It's only loss in that span was in Palo Alto, Calif, on Dec. 30, 2010 – a 71-57 defeat that ended the Huskies' record 90-game winning streak.
How did UConn feel about that? Its 61-35 win at Stanford on Dec. 29, 2012 was one of the worst statistical beatings any VanDerveer team has ever taken.
But only the present matters, and UConn is in the midst of a 44-game winning streak.
UConn won every game this season by double figures, paced by an offense with each starter scoring in double figures and a defense that has set an NCAA record for blocked shots.
On Tuesday, the Huskies placed every starter on the AP All-America team, paced by Breanna Stewart, a unanimous first-team selection.
Stanford (33-3) was 17-1 in regular season conference play but was eliminated in the semifinals of the conference tournament by Southern California. Its only other loss came Jan. 27 at Washington, 87-82.
"We'll be ready to play," VanDerveer said. "We're excited. We are looking forward to playing Connecticut."
The Cardinal, making their 12th Final Four appearance, are led by senior Chiney Ogwumike, a first-team All-American and Pac-10 player of the year who has led them in scoring in 34 of their 36 games. She is expected to be the choice of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, who hold the first pick in the draft on April 14 at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
"The fans of professional basketball are in for a special treat," VanDerveer said of Ogwumike. "The fans in Connecticut have a great appreciation for quality basketball. They know the real thing when they see it. And Chiney is the real deal."
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