By Jerry Hill, Baylor Bear Insider
You heard it before every Baylor home game this season: "We have unfinished business from last season."
Kim Mulkey's message came through loud and clear. After losing to Texas A&M in last year's Elite Eight game in Dallas, the Lady Bears were clearly on a mission to get back there and finish business with a national championship.
But as it turns out, all of this year's Final Four teams are motivated by the same thing. Notre Dame (34-3) lost in last year's championship game, while Stanford (35-1) and Connecticut (33-4) fell a step short of the title game.
"It was our mantra as well," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, whose Fighting Irish face UConn in the 5:30 p.m. semifinal at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo. "We saw it on TV the other night from Baylor and thought they stole it from us. We had talked about that from the minute we got back from Indianapolis last year. I think that was something that we really focused on. It was our motivation throughout the summer, throughout the season to get back and get another chance at it."
It happened a step later, but Connecticut had an ending very similar to Baylor's. After sweeping the two regular-season games and the Big East tournament final, the Huskies fell to the Fighting Irish, 72-63, in the semifinals.
"They've had enough failure and enough frustration to kind of harden them and toughen them - Baylor with being there and then not having the chance to be there last year; and Notre Dame with losing in the championship game last year; and Stanford with the heartbreak loss to Texas A&M last year. So I think all the teams that are there, including us, have a little bit of a hunger. There is no defending national champion that's in the field. So I think the same thing is going through everyone's mind at this point in time," said UConn's Geno Auriemma in speaking of this year's 2012 Final Four field which features all four No. 1 seeds for just the second time in the tournament's 30-year history.
The other defining connection with all four teams is defense.
Connecticut and Baylor are ranked 1-2 nationally in field goal percentage defense, holding teams to 29.9 and 30.9 shooting percentages, respectively. Stanford is eighth in field goal percentage defense (33.3), and Notre Dame is fifth nationally in points allowed (51.5).
"I would like to think that our defensive effort and the way we've guarded people this year, I would put that up against any team in the Final Four," Auriemma said. "I would think that we're as good defensively right now at this point in time as any team playing college basketball. I hope we get a chance to prove it this coming weekend."
Last year, Baylor ranked first nationally in field goal percentage defense at 32.3 percent, followed by UConn at 32.4.
"I can tell you, one of the things we're most proud of is Baylor and Connecticut guard people and we're proud of the fact that those two schools are back and forth on field goal percentage defense," Mulkey said. "There's a reason that Connecticut and Baylor are in the Final Four. Certainly it's talent, but the other thing is defense. We think we're pretty good on the defensive end of the floor."
Of course, it helps when you have a 6-foot-8 All-American on the back end of that defense. Griner, a unanimous Associated Press All-American and leading candidate for National Player of the Year honors, is averaging 23.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and a national-best 5.2 blocks.
"I can do some things defensively that aren't good principles and aren't what I really believe in," Mulkey said, "but because we have Brittney back there to help, we can gamble more."
And while Griner is arguably the nation's best defensive player, she's fouled out just once in 110 career games.
"Going right at Brittney, all you're going to do is get your shot blocked," Mulkey said. "You'd have to take your body and throw it into her. Well, if she's standing still, that's going to be an offensive foul on you. I can tell you this, you can't go into a game against Baylor and hope Brittney Griner gets in foul trouble, because that's not going to happen."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said the Lady Bears are "a lot more than just Brittney Griner."
"They give you so many puzzles to solve," said VanDerveer, whose Cardinal (35-1) faces top-ranked Baylor (38-0) in Sunday's late semifinal at 8 p.m. CDT. "First, you're not used to playing against 6-8. How do you score? Second would be how do you defend 6-8. And then Baylor is a lot more than just Brittney Griner. They have Odyssey Sims, Nae-Nae Hayden. They have perimeter shooters, rebounders, they have depth. They have a very experienced coach. So it's not one thing. It's probably many things."
On the flip side, Mulkey and the Lady Bears have to contend with Stanford's inside sister duo of Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike from Houston, Texas. A consensus first-team All-American, the 6-2 Nneka is averaging 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a senior. Chiney, a 6-3 sophomore, is a second-team All-American who is averaging 15.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.
"I recruited both of them; outstanding people, first of all," Mulkey said of the Ogwumike sisters, who led Houston Cy-Fair High School to the 2008 state championship. "That's the first thing I would tell you about the Ogwumike family. They are wonderful, wonderful people. And Nneka and Chiney, their talents speak for themselves when you watch them on film. They're outstanding scorers, great rebounders, great athletes. But more importantly, what they are on the floor is they're great leaders for their basketball team."
The Baylor Lady Bears will have a 4:30 p.m. send-off rally on Thursday in front of the Jack Whetsel Jr. Practice Facility at the Ferrell Center. Students, faculty, staff and fans are encouraged to join together to cheer on the Lady Bears before they depart for Denver and head from Mulkey and select players.