NEW ORLEANS (NCAA Women) - The players, coaching staffs and fans of the California Golden Bears and Louisville Cardinals heard all about the behemoths in the American women´s college game this season.
They listened as pundits predicted that powerhouses Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut would reach the NCAA Final Four.
When it comes to college hoops, though, nothing is a foregone conclusion.
While Notre Dame and UConn won their regions to reach the Final Four in New Orleans, where they will square off in one Semi-Final, California and Louisville also advanced and will meet in the other semi.
Louisville claimed the biggest scalps of all, that of defending champions Baylor in the third round.
Cal, a team that United States President Barack Obama left would reach the Final Four, advanced after winning a last-eight game against Georgia, the side that defeated Stanford in the third round.
Lindsay Gottlieb, the Cal coach, isn´t surprised that her players have made it this far.
“I have never been around a group that genuinely believes we’re going to get it done, believes in the person next to them,” she said.
One of the star players of the Bears, Layshia Clarendon, says California have every right to believe they can win two games and capture the title.
“Why not?," she said.
"I think Baylor was one of the huge monsters.
“Why not us? Why not the Cal Bears? We’re not backing down from anyone now.”
A player that featured at last year´s Olympics, Natalie Achonwa of Canada, plays for Notre Dame and will attempt to reach the Final for the third straight year and then win it for the first time.
To do so, the Fighting Irish will have to knock off UConn for the fourth time in a row this season.
Notre Dame swept the two meetings in the Big East regular season and then beat UConn in the conference title game.
Allison McNeill, the veteran coach of Canada who decided not to continue after leading the team to an eighth-place finish at the London Games, says that Achonwa has improved due in large part to her involvement with the national side.
”Being able to compete and play against those best players in the Olympics, she was like, ‘I can do that.’," McNeill said.
"She’s a confident kid anyway.
"But when you have that experience, I think that can put you over the top."
Achonwa has the luxury of competing alongside two of the finest players in women´s college basketball in guards Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride.
The three will have to be at their best to beat the Huskies again, and that is especially true when considering how UConn freshman Breanna Stewart has lifted her game in the post-season.
Geno Auriemma´s prized recruit, the national high school player of the year in 2011-12, has increased her numbers to 17 points and five rebounds a game in the post-season.
Auriemma, who led the Americans to gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship for Women and the 2012 Olympics, was asked after his team´s Regional Final triumph over Kentucky about Stewart's improved play during March Madness.
“I can’t get inside her head and I can’t say for sure what it was, but I know there was a different look about her,” he said.
He then joked: “I went to West Chester State University. If I went to Yale or someplace like that, I would say her countenance has changed.”
The Semi-Finals will be played on Sunday and the title game on Tuesday.
photos Janos Schmidt
photos Janos Schmidt