Best Final Four Ever?

I know that, heading into the workweek, all college basketball attention is being paid to San Antonio. The men's tournament is set for its annual Monday finish. It's a fascinating matchup that's as old as the game. One team sports a new-found defense that seems to have stifled all-comers. The other features a bevy of offensive weapons that are coming off an shooting performance for the ages. With all of that, though, that's to come Monday night.

One tournament just finished it's run, and, for this one weekend, it appeared to put the men's DI tourney on the back burner. Now, I know many people (the vast majority) don't follow the women's game. I try. I don't do it to the extent that I need to, but I try. In a way, I can understand why some don't. They may not enjoy the style of play. The may think that the women lack athleticism. For the sake of the national title picture, they may not enjoy the fact the Connecticut appears to be a runaway train to most every trophy.

I could be put in the latter camp. I do watch the women play. I do watch some of the tournament. However, there's been a since of inevitability over the last few years. The Huskies became such a machine of winning, of dominance, that I didn't believe they could be unnerved. Even though, Geno Auriemma's team had their 111-game winning streak snapped in last year's semifinals, this edition came in to the latest Final Four as the only undefeated team in the country.

So, Friday night, it was off to Columbus, where all four 1-seeded teams were battling for the ultimate prize. I knew I wanted to watch the first contest. Louisville and Mississippi State had been impressive all year, losing a combined three games all season (to Florida State, South Carolina, and UConn). This one was projected to be a defensive struggle, and it was on the nose.

The Cardinals held some brief leads of 5, 6, and 7 points, but the Bulldogs responded each time, keeping the action tight throughout. With under 30 seconds left in the fourth, Louisville grabbed a 3-point edge. The situation could have called for a late-game foul to send Mississippi State to the line for two shots. But Vic Schafer worked a way around that strategy. A solid screen play left the team's best three-point shooter, Roshunda Johnson, in enough space to get off a clean look for the tie. It went down with about five seconds to play.

That gave Louisville enough time to drive down the court, get to the rim, draw some contact (wasn't called) on a layup attempt, and miss the put-back try. After the chaotic sequence, the two squads headed to overtime. In OT, the Bulldogs used some timely shots by Victoria Vivians (25 points) and stops, with help from the record effort of Teaira McCowan (21 points, 25 rebounds), to pull away and win by 10.

The nightcap featured two rivals. Undefeated Connecticut seemingly went back in time to face old Big East fo Notre Dame. The Huskies and Fighting Irish have risen to the top of the sport's rivalry list. UConn has dominated the overall series, as well as the recent meetings. There was a time about 5-7 years ago when Muffet McGraw kind of had Auriemma's number (won 7 of 8 meetings). But even when the Irish got through the big, bad Huskies, they couldn't capitalize in the form of a national title. On Friday, this game was assumed to be pretty offensive-minded. That prediction was not disappointed.

Notre Dame got off to a hot start, holding UConn to 14 points in the first quarter while amassing a 10-point advantage. It didn't last long. The Huskies held the Irish to a mere 10 points in the second quarter and slung itself to a seven-point halftime advantage. That's usually where the story ends. UConn rolls, right? Well, this time around, Notre Dame found a couple of sparks. The backcourt tandem of Jackie Young (32 points) and Arike Ogunbowale (27 points) kept driving through the vaunted Huskies defense to pull UND ahead with time winding down in regulation.

But, as soon as it appeared that the Irish had the game won, they blew a 5-point lead with seconds to play. A last-second bank shot by UConn's Gabby Williams fell short, and overtime No. 2 on the night was ready to commence.

Notre Dame got off to a good start in OT, building another five-point advantage. Again, UConn responded and tied the game back up with the Irish holding for the final shot. Cue Ogunbowale. The consensus Second-Team All-American had the ball in her hands and knew what to do with it. Using a step-back motion, she found enough space to put up a long mid-range shot over a taller defender and drain it with 1.0 seconds on the clock. A last-ditch effort to tie fell short, and UConn was thrust into the land of deja vu.

For the second straight year, the Huskies lost on a buzzer-beating, step-back jumper in overtime of the national semifinal. It not only stopped what many thought would be a coronation. It made such folks, like myself, look extremely dumb.

So, in the end, you were left with two overtime semifinal matchups (the first time that has ever happened in the history of the women's or men's tournament) and a story of redemption. For Mississippi State, they could finally grab the title they just missed out on a year before (after taking down UConn). For Notre Dame, they could finally get over the hump needed to secure the second championship in the program's history. That all played out in a similar battle of wills to the men's final, but only one day prior.

The Irish sprinted to another fast start, going up by six on multiple trips, before the Bulldogs found their offense. Then, the game completely turned. MSU's defense stifled the Notre Dame attack, limiting McGraw's offense to a measly three points in the second quarter. Schaefer's ladies seemingly took control with a 30-17 halftime edge. But once Young returned to the lineup (after early foul trouble) and Ogunbowale found her stroke (after scoring 2 points in the first 20 minutes), UND chipped away at the deficit, catching up by the end of the third quarter. The last ten minutes, the score was within shouting distance. The Bulldogs stayed ahead, but couldn't build any separation from the Irish until they finally went up by five with 2:01 left to play.

Thing is, this Final Four has taught us that no lead was ever safe. A three from Marina Mabrey and a bank shot from Young tied the score. After a missed layup by McCowan, a frantic sequence of events happened, resulting in instantaneous back-to-back turnovers, a fifth foul on McCowan, and the Irish getting the ball on the sideline on 3.0 seconds to play. Could we have a third overtime in three games? Ogunbowale had the answer for that. She received the inbounds pass, got into a shooting position, and launched a three-point attempt (somewhere between shot and heave) that found its way through the net as the buzzer sounded (technically, there was 0.1 seconds left). That gave the Notre Dame program the second NCAA trophy its been so coveting for 16 years.

And what did the women's game come away with? Potentially the most tense and dramatic Final Four anybody has ever seen, either on the men's or women's side. After seeing Friday night's games, I wondered if the men could come close to duplicating that drama on Saturday. It didn't (although the Loyola/Michigan matchup was a good one). I don't know if the drama on Monday can keep up with Sunday's serving. Now, yes, I know what many of you are saying.

"Really? It's women's basketball. Who cares?"

But, if I believe something, I hope that it's that I consistently give anything good/great its deserved props. In my opinion, the games that took place this weekend in Columbus fit that bill. From a sports consumer aspect, you may not feel that these women deserve your respect. But there's no doubt in my mind that they earned it.

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