Texas A&M did it to Baylor in Big D. Now, Notre Dame has turned the tables on UConn in Indy. If the men’s version of March Madness has been about upsets, the women’s 2011 tourney will be remembered for the fours.
Just like the Aggies in a pair of Big 12 battles with the Lady Bears, the Fighting Irish lost twice to the two-time defending champion Huskies in the Big East regular season. Texas A&M and Notre Dame then both took it on the chin for the third time against their rivals in their respective conference championship games.
Yet, when it mattered most in the NCAA tournament, the Aggies slayed the distaff Goliath known as Brittney Griner, the 6′8″ center, the top seed in the Dallas regional, to advance to Indianapolis. And ND, which vanquished Pat Summit’s No. 1 seeded Tennessee Lady Vols in the Dayton regional final, took it a step further against UConn at the Women’s Final Four on Sunday night.
In Indianapolis, Texas A&M trailed Stanford 54-44 with just over six minutes remaining. But Gary Blair’s Aggies outscored the Cardinal 19-8, down the stretch. There were five lead changes in the final minute, capped by a layup from Tyra White with 3.3 seconds remaining, to upset the West No. 1 and the tourney’s overall top seed in the national semifinal. It was Tara VanDerveer’s team’s fourth straight empty trip at the Final Four.
ND’s feat in Indianapolis might not have been as frenetic, but it was even more impressive and significant, as it ended the college of career of Maya Moore, the three-time Wade Award winner and the top game winner in college basketball history, with remarkably just a fourth loss. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel came up big for ND, pouring in 28 and 22, respectively. The Irish penetrated at will to ultimately leash the Huskies, and put coach Muffet McGraw in position to win the program’s second title.
Irish’s eyes were smiling despite 36 from the four-time All-American Moore, who fell three points short of Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw as the top scorer in women’s tournament history, with her two titles bookended by losses in the national semifinals. In the process, UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s second attempt at three-peat collapsed behind Stephanie Dolson’s foul trouble and very few other answers from the rest of his callow, small and depth-deprived team.
ESPN’s ratings likely collapsed as well. Instead of a rematch of the Cardinal-Huskies – Stanford ended UConn’s record 90-game winning streak late last year, so it would have made for a great storyline — in the Women’s NCAA championship game, it’s two bracket-busting No. 2s on their parallel courses, now intersecting as they go fourth for a title on Tuesday night.
The Nielsen scorecard showed that in 2010, Connecticut’s win over Stanford in the title tilt drew a 2.7 U.S. rating and 3.5 million viewers on ESPN. That was up 29% in ratings and 32% in viewership from Connecticut/Louisville in 2009 (a 2.1, 2.7 million). Some 3.9 million watched Tennessee and Candace Parker beat Stanford and Candice Wiggins in the 2008 final.
All of those numbers pale by comparison with the 2002 championship, when UConn, led by Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, drew a record 5.68 million watchers for a women’s basketball game, as those Huskies closed out a 39-0 season over Stacey Dale’s Oklahoma squad.
Although it may be good for the long-term health of the sport that programs other than UConn (seven crowns) and Tennessee (eight under Pat Summit) contend for and win national championships, the Nielsens might not take so kindly to the absence of the Huskies, Lady Vols and Cardinal brands on ESPN come Tuesday night.