Final Four teams in familiar territory in women's tournament

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her second-ranked basketball team know a thing or seven about Women’s Final Fours. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows a thing or three about Women’s Final Fours, too.

But Staley’s third-ranked team, which Notre Dame plays in the national semifinals Sunday at 6:30 p.m. inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, doesn’t have a clue. It’s new territory for the SEC champion Gamecocks.

“Our kids have never been on this stage before,’’ Staley said Wednesday during her time on an NCAA national teleconference featuring McGraw, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Maryland’s Brenda Frese.

“You get a little star struck by it,’’ Staley continued, “but at the same time our kids have been a team that has been focused all season long, and our focus has been to get to the Final Four. But our main focus is to win a national championship.’’

McGraw and the Irish are in their fifth straight Final Four and seventh overall. They won it all in 2001 and finished runner-up in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Staley, who is in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a world-renowned player internationally and in the WNBA, was the point guard for three straight Virginia teams that went to the Final Four beginning in 1990 and almost won it all but lost to Tennessee 70-67 in overtime in New Orleans in 1991.

That 1991 Final Four, ironically, was Auriemma’s first trip to the Final Four with UConn. The top-ranked Huskies, who are seeking a third straight national title and 10th overall, have been to eight straight Final Fours and 16 total under Auriemma.

Even No. 4 Maryland, the Big Ten champion which meets UConn in the second semifinal Sunday at 9, has one national title (2006 under Frese) and four Final Four appearances, including last year when it was ousted in the semifinals by then fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member Notre Dame.

But South Carolina? Nada. In fact, the 34-2 Gamecocks, long a middle-of-the-road program in the Southeastern Conference, only this year won their first SEC tournament title, beat Tennessee, 62-46, before getting by four NCAA opponents to reach Tampa. And ironically, the last three were ACC teams — Syracuse (97-68) in the second round at Columbia, S.C., and then North Carolina (67-65) and Florida State (80-74) in the Greensboro Regional semifinal and final.

Staley’s not worried. “We’re going to approach this like a business trip,’’ she said.

McGraw, who is usually all business as a coach, and her staff want the young team, which went 35-2 despite losing three seniors off last season’s national runner-up, to savor the accomplishment of reaching Tampa.

“We’re definitely trying to have some fun,’’ McGraw said. “Let them enjoy themselves. I think they play so much better when they are loose, which is hard for me because I’ve got to be a lot more patient and a lot more forgiving for what’s going on on the floor at the time. I think we’re trying to make it less complicated. I don’t think we’re trying to do too many different things, too many new things.’’

Irish update

Notre Dame had Monday off, worked light on Tuesday and watched some film of South Carolina Wednesday. That gave the Irish some time to work off any aches and pains they may have brought back with them from their Oklahoma City Regional victories over Stanford and a very physical Baylor team.

Junior tri-captain and long-distance specialist Michaela Mabrey, who hit four critical 3-pointers in the first half and missed most of the second half with dizziness, has practiced the last couple of days and is fine.

Team spokesman Chris Masters said Mabrey was dealing with dehydration matters against Baylor but has had no recurrence.

Streaking

The Irish, 35-2, have won their last 21 games. That streak is only the third best among the Women’s Final Four teams.

The Huskies, 36-1, have won 35 in a row after losing at Stanford, 88-86 in overtime, on Nov. 17. Included in that streak are victories over Notre Dame (76-58 on Dec. 6 in South Bend) and South Carolina (87-62 on Feb. 9 in Storrs, Conn.) when both were ranked No. 1.

Maryland, meanwhile, has won 28 straight since dropping a 92-72 decision to Notre Dame in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game on Dec. 3 in Fort Wayne. The Terps, which fell to 6-2 with the loss, went through their first Big Ten season after leaving the ACC at 18-0 in the regular season and then won three straight in the Big Ten tournament, capping it with a 77-74 victory over Ohio State in the championship game. Maryland has knocked off New Mexico State (75-57), Princeton (85-70), Duke (65-55) and Tennessee (58-48) to win the Spokane Regional.

“We hope that people are able to see on a national scale now our consistency factor,’’ said Frese, an Iowa native who spent two years at Ball State and one season at Minnesota before going to Maryland and winning it all in 2006, her fourth season in College Park. “I think what this team has been able to accomplish this season, going undefeated in conference, winning the Big Ten tournament and now making it to back-to-back Final Fours, I would think there would be a consistency factor that continues to show up.’’

South Carolina started the season 22-0, taking over the top spot from Notre Dame after the Irish lost to UConn. The Gamecocks stayed on top until losing to UConn on Feb. 9, then won five in a row before losing their regular-season SEC finale at Kentucky, 67-56. They rebounded with three wins in the SEC tourney and four more in the NCAA.

Stipend for families

Families or guardians of players will receive $3,000 to defray their travel expenses to Tampa for the Women’s Final Four. The four Men’s Final Four teams’ players also are receiving the same to go to Indianapolis. Both Ohio State and Oregon players received similar stipends for the first College Football Playoff championship game in Arlington, Texas in January.

Philadelphia roots

The basketball roots for Staley, McGraw and Auriemma all go back to Philadelphia, and the three coaches were asked about that Wednesday. When Auriemma left current Chattanooga head coach Jim Foster’s staff at Saint Joseph’s College to begin building the UConn program, Foster reached out and hired McGraw, who had played at the school, as an assistant. Staley left Philadelphia to play at Virginia and later returned to coach at Temple before heading to South Carolina.

“To have three of us, and we all speak the language, I think we’re all pretty much the same and tell it like it is,’’ McGraw said. “I think it’s kind of fun. It’s a shame the Final Four is not in Philly. We’re thinking maybe a cheesesteak for the winner.’’

“I’m pretty much the new kid on the block being at the Final Four,’’ Staley said. “Geno and Muffet have been doing this a long time. (I’m) so extremely happy Philadelphia is getting the due it deserves.’’

“I think we’re all a product of where we grew up,’’ Auriemma said. “There’s respect there among the three of us. I wish I was a bystander and could sit there and root for all three of us.’’

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw listens during a news conference after Notre Dame's 77-68 win over Baylor in a regional final in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 29, 2015, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)