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Women’s basketball powers cover lackluster opening rounds with electric Final Four

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Women’s basketball powers cover lackluster opening rounds with electric Final Four

The Baylor Lady Bears celebrate with the NCAA trophy after their 82-81 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to win the championship game of the 2019 NCAA Women's Tournament on Sunday, April 7, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

The Baylor Lady Bears celebrate with the NCAA trophy after their 82-81 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to win the championship game of the 2019 NCAA Women's Tournament on Sunday, April 7, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images/TNS

The Baylor Lady Bears celebrate with the NCAA trophy after their 82-81 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to win the championship game of the 2019 NCAA Women's Tournament on Sunday, April 7, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images/TNS

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images/TNS

The Baylor Lady Bears celebrate with the NCAA trophy after their 82-81 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to win the championship game of the 2019 NCAA Women's Tournament on Sunday, April 7, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

By Dominic Campbell, Staff Writer

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While much of the sporting world was fixated on the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four this weekend, the women also played their Final Four in Tampa. All three contests played this weekend went down to the wire.

This year’s women’s Final Four included some of the sport’s perennial powers: the UConn Huskies, Baylor Lady Bears, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Oregon Ducks. Both Baylor and Notre Dame were No. 1 seeds, with the Lady Bears as the No. 1 seed overall. UConn and Oregon were No. 2 seeds.

UConn is women’s basketball flagship program, winning 11 NCAA tournaments and going to 19 Final Fours overall, so it was shocking to some that they were not awarded a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006.

Despite their seeding, the Huskies continued their tournament dominance by dismantling Towson in the opening round before edging out wins against Buffalo by 12 and UCLA by nine in the next two rounds.

In the Elite Eight, UConn faced No. 1 seed Louisville, who beat the Huskies earlier this season. But this time around the Huskies exacted revenge, winning 80-73 to advance to their 12th consecutive final four.

Oregon doesn’t boast the same championship pedigree as UConn, but after losing in the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons, they captured the elusive Final Four berth they had been searching for.

The Ducks easily beat Portland State and Indiana in the first two rounds, winning both games by more than 20 points. The Sweet 16 brought a tougher challenge in upset-minded South Dakota State, but the Ducks still won by double digits.

After cruising through their first three games, the Ducks now faced No. 1 seed Mississippi State, the national runner-up in each of the past two seasons. Oregon was fueled by a career-high 31 points from junior guard Sabrina Ionescu and the Ducks downed the Bulldogs, 88-84.

Ioncesu’s offensive outburst could almost have been expected. She averaged 22.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game through her first four games of the tournament.

Baylor came into the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and for good reason. The Lady Bears went undefeated in conference play and won the Big 12 tournament, finishing with a 31-1 overall record. They had entered this postseason seeking their first NCAA Championship since 2012, a year when they went 40-0.

Similar to that magical season, The Lady Bears steamrolled every opponent in their path. Their smallest margin of victory was 25 points against No. 4 South Carolina in the Sweet 16. In the Elite Eight, the Lady Bears held the nations top shooting team, Iowa, to only 32% shooting from the field and won by 32.

In the Chicago regional, the reigning National Champion Notre Dame lived up to high expectations. They blew past No. 16 Bethune-Cookman and No. 9 seed Michigan State decisively.

But in the Sweet 16, the Fighting Irish ran into trouble with No. 4 seed Texas A&M, but survived facing No. 2 Stanford in the Elite Eight. There the Irish won comfortably, 84-68 and moved on to a second consecutive Final Four.

In the first Final Four game, featuring Baylor and Oregon, the Ducks held a one-point halftime lead after a 12-point second quarter from Ioncesu.

But the Ducks faltered down the stretch, missing 12 of their 13 final shots from the field. Even Ionescu fell victim to the shooting woes, as she failed to score in the final period.

With the game tied at 67 with 1:40 to go, both junior forward Lauren Cox and graduate guard Chloe Jackson hit key jumpers to secure a 72-67 win.

The second game between UConn and Notre Dame was a rematch of last year’s national championship, when the Irish won on a last second shot by now-senior guard Arike Ogunbowale.

The first three quarters were tight and UConn entered the final 10 minutes with a 54-52 advantage. The Huskies briefly gained some separation after the final intermission. They opened the quarter on a 10-3 run and lead 64-55 with eight minutes remaining. But the Irish fought back with a 13-3 run to take a 68-66 lead with four minutes to go.

The deciding play of that night’s back-and-forth affair came with 49 seconds left and Notre Dame leading by three. Senior forward Brianna Turner, blocked UConn’s Naphessa Collier. On the ensuing Irish possession, Ogunbowale made two free throws to put the Irish up five, essentially putting the game out of reach and assuring an eventual 81-76 victory.

The National Championship game on Sunday night between Baylor and Notre Dame was a fitting end to a heartstopping Final Four.

The first half belonged to the Lady Bears, who jumped out to a 43-31 lead before the break, as the Fighting Irish shot an abysmal 11 of 40 from the field. Baylor, on the other hand, was extremely efficient on offense, shooting 63% from the field.

The Irish were able to improve their shooting after halftime, particularly Ogunbowale, but they still struggled to cut into Baylor’s lead as they were up 60-46 with about two minutes left in the third. Unfortunately for Baylor, Cox suffered a knee injury with 1:22 left and would not return.

Following Cox’s injury, the Irish went on runs of 8-0 and 11-4 to tie the game at 74 with 5:18 remaining. Senior guard Marina Mabrey, who made three 3-pointers and three free throws, was crucial during the Irish comeback.

From there, neither team was able to pull away. Baylor got jumpers from first year forward NaLyssa Smith and senior center Kalani Brown, but Ogunbowale responded with a layup and a free throw to make it 78-77 to Baylor going into the final minute.

Senior forward Jessica Shepherd tied it for the Fighting Irish with a free throw 47 seconds to go. On the ensuing possession, Jackson put Baylor back into the lead with a jumper. Shepherd once again was big from the foul line as she converted both of her chances to tie the game again with 16 seconds to go. Then Jackson made the biggest shot of her life, as she drove to the basket and made a layup to put the Lady Bears up two with five seconds remaining.

After a Notre Dame timeout, they got the ball to Ogunbowale, who was fouled going up for a layup with 1.9 seconds left. She missed the first and attempted to miss the second intentionally in an attempt to get the ball back, but ended up making it. Baylor got the ball back and was able to run out the clock and become National Champions.

Blowout after blowout plagued the opening rounds, but it was worth it for the conclusion. An electric Final Four that featured the sport’s elite programs in thrilling contests more than made up for the lackluster games of the first weekend.

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Women’s basketball powers cover lackluster opening rounds with electric Final Four