“This team surprised a lot of people this year with our ability to finish games. It’s just different players stepping up at different moments.” Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame senior guard
NEW ORLEANS — Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry has a message for anyone thinking about dethroning Baylor in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament: Good luck.
“Nobody can come close to them,” said Curry, whose team is a No. 7 seed in the tournament, which begins Saturday and ends April 7-9 with the Final Four in New Orleans Arena. “Anybody who beats them is going to have to have a game that is beyond perfection, and Baylor is going to have just a really poor night at all five positions. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Curry should know.
Her Lady Red Raiders lost to Baylor (39-1) twice this year — 90-60 and 89-47 — in a season when the Lady Bears’ average margin of victory was 27.1 points. Last season, the Lady Bears were a perfect 40-0 with a winning margin of 26.3.
And if Baylor senior center Brittney Griner, the likely repeat national Player of the Year, knows what might do in her team, she’s not giving it up.
“I can’t tell you now,” she said during Monday’s revealing of the 64-team bracket. “I’ll wait until after it’s over.”
And while few expect it not to be over for Baylor until the Lady Bears are again cutting down the nets, there are potential pitfalls.
While the top seed in the Oklahoma City Region is at home for the first two rounds, against No. 16 Prairie View (17-14) on Sunday and then versus the winner of Florida State (22-9) and Princeton (22-6) on March 26, the potential regional final opponent is No. 2 seed Tennessee (24-7).
That’s the same Tennessee that Baylor beat in last year’s regional final, ending the career of legendary coach Pat Summitt.
Under former longtime assistant Holly Warlick, the Lady Vols won the Southeastern Conference’s regular-season championship after being picked fifth in the preseason.
And then, should the Lady Bears make it to the semifinals, they could meet Stanford (31-2), the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region and the only team to beat Baylor this season. That was 71-69 in Hawaii in the season’s third game. Baylor beat Stanford in last year’s national semifinal.
Finally, the championship game could be a repeat of last year’s national title game against Notre Dame, the No. 1 seed in the Norfolk Region.
But the only defeat for the Fighting Irish (32-1) was a 73-61 homecourt loss to Baylor on Dec. 5. Plus Notre Dame, which lost to Texas A&M in the 2011 championship game, has a potential semifinal date with Connecticut (29-4), which the Irish has beaten three times this season and which is the No. 1 seed in the Bridgeport Region.
Like Baylor/Stanford, Notre Dame/UConn would be a rematch of last year’s Final Four.
“This team surprised a lot of people this year with our ability to finish games,” Notre Dame senior guard Skylar Diggins said of her team’s dominance against the Huskies. “It’s just different players stepping up at different moments.”
Diggins also said that, while disappointing, falling short in the past two national title games has been a good learning experience.
“We’ve lost to two very good teams in both of those situations, but we knew we left it all on the court,” she said. “We were excited about what we did last year, but now our goal is to win six.”
Of the No. 1 seeds, Notre Dame has the toughest path just to get to the regional.
While Baylor, UConn and Stanford are all at home for the first two rounds as predesignated sites, the Irish must play at Iowa, where their potential second-round foes are the ninth-seeded Hawkeyes (20-12).
Ohio State was the only early site where the home team did not make the tournament, but selection committee chairman Carolayne Henry said that other bracket considerations made sending the Irish there impossible. ULCA, Stetson, Oklahoma and Central Michigan wound as the teams in Columbus, but Henry said the committee was not concerned about poor attendance there.
Henry also said the geographic considerations played a role in California, a No. 2 seed, winding up in the Spokane region with Pac-12 rival Stanford.
But to Curry, no matter who winds up where, Baylor will be the team to beat.
“They’re not just as good as they were last year,” she said. “They’re much beyond that.”