Connecticut seemed destined to reach an eighth consecutive Final Four the moment Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis nailed a 3-pointer six seconds into the season at UC Davis. It wasn't nearly as obvious that soon for Maryland, but as the Terrapins took down one opponent after another en route to a still-standing 28-game winning streak, the Terrapins also became a favorite to reach the final weekend for a second straight year.
All four No. 1 seeds reached the game's ultimate destination for just the third time in history, but UConn still stands alone, going for a third consecutive title and Geno Auriemma's 10th overall, which would tie John Wooden for most college basketball championships. Maryland goes from playing Goliath all season in the Big Ten to taking on the role of David on Sunday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), hoping to give us all the unexpected.
Why they'll win the national title
Connecticut: It's probably more difficult to find reasons why the Huskies won't three-peat. Auriemma and his coaching staff preside over a team that tops the nation in field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, assists per game and blocked shots per game. The Huskies are equal parts prolific and stingy. No one scores more points and gives up fewer than this Connecticut bunch.
Those are all impressive statistical areas, but often overlooked with this and preceding UConn teams is the Huskies' uncanny ability to not give away anything for free. Layups? A luxury item against Connecticut. Free throws? Four-leaf clover rare. UConn rarely turns over the ball (12.2 turnovers per game) and doesn't foul much (second only to Chattanooga for fewest personal fouls committed). On only three occasions this season has a Husky fouled out.
The competition around the country has gotten better, but UConn continues to do the little and big things with equal aplomb that few have taken notice. The Huskies have lost one game in two seasons and most observers are still attempting to figure out how that happened (Stanford executed a great game plan and caught Connecticut at the right time seems to be the best answer).
Of course it helps to simply have great players. All these gaudy rankings are the product of talent along with smarts, hard work, attention to detail, brilliant preparation, focus on the moment, and a yearning for constant self and collective improvement in which the measuring stick is the level of execution, not the scoreboard.
The AP All-American teams were unveiled on Tuesday. Three of the top 10 players were Huskies -- Breanna Stewart on the first team and Moriah Jefferson and Mosqueda-Lewis on the second. Morgan Tuck was an honorable mention choice, only one very reasonable argument away from being at least third team.
Stanford showed us this is a slayable dragon, but the area of vulnerability is much smaller than it was in November.
Maryland: In its first season in the Big Ten, Maryland became just the third team to go unbeaten in league play in the regular season. In the Big Ten tournament, the Terps won all four games by double figures.
Last year the Terrapins arrived at the Final Four largely on the back of Alyssa Thomas, one of the program's all-time greats. She carried a talented collection of freshmen somewhat unexpectedly to the season's final weekend. Now those freshmen are sophomores and this time an even better Maryland team got to this point with a spread-the-wealth approach.
Four of the five starters average between 13.8 and 12.3 points per game. Brenda Frese's team is the rare collection of talent that offensively can play inside-out and outside-in. The Terps prefer a 94-foot game, but are perfectly adept at playing in the half court. That variation allows anyone to shine. Lexie Brown and Laurin Mincy carried they day in the second round against Princeton. Brown was virtually nonexistent offensively a game later, but Shatori Walker-Kimbrough rose to the occasion against Duke. It was back to balance against Tennessee in the Spokane Regional final, but that just meant Brionna Jones doing the first-half work deep in the lane until Brown regained her form.
In this way, Maryland is much like UConn -- a variety of versatile offensive players all capable of leading the way, but all willing to defer to a hotter hand. As a result, the Terps rank in the national top 10 in scoring, rebounding and field goal accuracy, and the top 20 in assists. Outstanding numbers, yes, but still not Connecticut's equal. Fortunately for Maryland, the numbers won't matter on Sunday night. The Terps only have to be better for one 40-minute stretch.
The three keys
1. Body Stewie: Stewart might not have had the best season in women's college basketball this year, but she remains the game's best player -- this NCAA tournament has cemented that. Her performance in two games in Albany -- in which she averaged 27 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, and 3.5 blocks on 19-of-34 shooting -- was brilliant, as if she was priming for a third consecutive Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.
So what is Maryland to do? Not much has worked for anyone lately, but the Terrapins' best bet is playing her physically. Stanford and Notre Dame bodied Stewart at every opportunity and her rhythm was affected. Of course, both of those games were before Christmas. Stewart, and more importantly her teammates, are much better now. Using multiple defenders to rough up Stewart a bit is easier said than effectively done today. But Maryland has to try something to make her think a little bit more about coming into the lane. She is dangerous from anywhere, but keeping her on the perimeter is at least better odds. Bumping and grinding worked once, it's worth trying again. There doesn't seem to be another way.
2. UConn scorers are everywhere: Auriemma has assembled a team that has shot-makers at every position. How can a defense key on anyone or anything in particular when the next basket is always just one pass away? No one shoots the 3-pointer better than Mosqueda-Lewis, now the NCAA's all-time leader in that department, but let's not forget that Jefferson also shoots better than 50 percent from behind the arc and that freshman Kia Nurse makes more than 41 percent. Despite a pedestrian 31.5 percent from Stewart, no one wants her left alone beyond the arc. Everyone, with the possible exception of Mosqueda-Lewis, has a mid-range game. They are all finishers at the basket. Even when Auriemma goes to a taller lineup with Kiah Stokes in for Nurse, the 6-foot 3 senior, who is not inserted to score, shoots better than 55 percent.
Making open shots is as fundamental as a good bounce pass or box out. It starts by taking good shots. That's yet another area where UConn excels above the pack -- the right combination of aggression and discernment. And UConn gets both from all five positions.
3. Terps need to run: Maryland is at its best in the open floor. The Terps can run with UConn. Seeing Dayton get up and down for open transition shots against the Huskies for 20 minutes should spark confidence in Maryland's ability to do it, too, possibly for more than a half.
That is what it will take. The Terps not only can run with UConn, but they have to. No one beats -- or even competes with -- Connecticut in a slugfest. Scoring right with the Huskies is the only way. Maryland was eighth in the country with 79.2 points per game. If the Terps aren't in the 80's, they probably can't win. The way to do that is get into the open court with athletic finishers and shooters like Walker-Kimbrough, Brown and Mincy. That will begin with getting enough defensive stops and rebounding the way the Terps have all season.
Maryland was effective building the offense around pounding the ball inside to Jones in the regional final against Tennessee. It was the right strategy against the right team. It worked. It also produced just 58 points. Fifty-eight points gets Maryland steamrolled this Sunday.
The names you know
Breanna Stewart: Sue Bird was a leader, Diana Taurasi a crunch-time killer, Maya Moore a smooth operator. These descriptions are the first things that come to mind when referencing some of the greatest players in Connecticut history. Skilled seems to be the word most attached to Stewart at this point in her career. That's because she has been and remains the most difficult matchup in the game today, perhaps ever. Every facet of the game is a refined package within Stewart that has manifested itself into 17.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals per game.
Lexie Brown: The camera often seems to find Frese and Brown locked in conversation throughout a game. Of course, the discussions are primarily one-sided, but Frese is not wasting her breath. Brown is Maryland's most important player. The sophomore point guard is just the Terps' third-leading scorer and the worst percentage shooter among the starters, but she was the only one named an All-American (third team). That's because she's the guts and the leader at Maryland, something difficult not to notice.
Connecticut: Morgan Tuck. The least decorated of UConn's four veteran starters, Tuck has become an empowered force. Connecticut's season has taken a couple of turns; Nurse moving into the starting lineup after the Stanford loss was one. The other, and certainly bigger, was Tuck's 25-point performance at Notre Dame on Dec. 6 when the Irish (playing without Brianna Turner) did all they could to take Stewart out of the game. Stewart finished 3-of-15 from the field for 15 points, but UConn, Tuck and her savvy play around the basket haven't looked back.
Maryland: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. Maryland beat both of its Spokane Regional opponents by 10 points. The Terps might not have beaten either without Walker-Kimbrough. With Brown languishing through one of her worst college games, Walker-Kimbrough pumped in 18 of her 24 points in the second half to put away Duke. Twelve more points followed against Tennessee. Walker-Kimbrough isn't the Terrapins' best player nor their most important, but no other Terp can provide those quick, meaningful bursts of scoring like she can.