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Basketball - 23. March 2013.

USA - Griner, Baylor set for second run to glory

WACO (NCAA Women) - The promised land for 64 teams in women’s college basketball is New Orleans.

That’s where the women´s NCAA Tournament Final Four is being staged 7-9 April.

A lot of hard games will have to be won for any side to reach the Big Easy, though.

First Round battles will be waged all over the country this weekend.

United States President Barack Obama, a huge basketball fan, expects defending champions Baylor and Notre Dame to square off in the title game for the second straight year.

In a televised broadcast from the White House, Obama said: “I think it will be an interesting game and anything can happen, but in the end, I just think Baylor is too tough. I think Brittney (Griner) ends up winning it again, and Baylor ends up back in the White House.”

President Obama invites the champions of the NCAA Tournament to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue each year.

Baylor go into this weekend as the number one ranked team in the nation and for good reason.

The towering presence of the 2.03m Griner, one of the best college players of all time, makes the Lady Bears favorites in the eyes of many.

Recently named the Big 12 Player of the Year for the third straight season and the league's Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth straight year, Griner is a near certainty to feature for the United States in international competition, possibly as early as 2014 when the FIBA World Championship for Women is held in Turkey.

She was dominant this season in leading Baylor to 32 wins in their 33 games, averaging 23.6 points, nine rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game while shooting 60.4% from the floor – the best in the land.

She has an NCAA record 736 career blocked shots and ranks second on the NCAA Division I career scoring list with 3,203 points.

Their first game will be in front of their own fans against Prairie View A&M on Sunday in Waco, Texas.

First up for Notre Dame is a game in Iowa City against the University of Tennessee Martin.

The Fighting Irish have every reason to believe the third time will be the charm for their side if they reach the Final as they enter the tournament as Big East champions and riding a 26-game winning streak.

In their squad are three players with international connections.

Natalie Achonwa has represented Canada at the 2010 FIBA World Championship for Women and at last summer’s Olympics, while Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride have played for the United States at youth level and could very well end up in the same American squad with Griner one day.

The University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who led the USA national team to gold medals at the 2010 FIBA World Championship for Women and at last summer’s Olympics, knows there is a possibility that his Huskies could face a Notre Dame side for the fourth time this season.

UConn have lost the three games played this season to Notre Dame, including one in a Big East title showdown.

“Had we been beaten decisively in all three games, I would feel terrible,” Auriemma said.

“But I don’t feel that way at all. My staff, my players and I feel like we lost those three games.

“And we’re not going to lose the next one.”

Notre Dame have won seven of the past eight meetings with UConn.

The Huskies are at home in Storrs on Saturday and hosting Idaho in their NCAA Tournament opener.

Stanford, the only side to beat Baylor, are another team many expect to reach the Final Four.

The Cardinal are at home to Tulsa on Sunday.

Leonor Rodriguez, who competed for 10th place Spain at the FIBA 3x3 World Championship in Athens last summer, will lead Florida State in their first game against Princeton on Sunday.

The shooting guard goes into the tournament as the Seminoles’ biggest weapon on offense.

Should the Noles win that game, Rodriguez and her teammates are likely to face Griner and Baylor in their second round game.

Among the other internationals to look out for this weekend is Tolu Omotola of the Liberty Lady Flames.

Omotola is a part of the Nigerian women’s basketball set-up.

She and the Lady Flames on Sunday go up against favored Purdue in Louisville, Kentucky.

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