There will be no long-awaited rematch of UConn and Tennessee in the Women's Final Four. But the more recent incarnation of women's hoops' preeminent grudge match -- UConn versus Notre Dame -- could be on the horizon.
For the third time since the NCAA tournament began for women in 1982, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four: UConn, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Maryland.
In Monday's late show, Maryland continued the agony of Tennessee, beating the Lady Vols 58-48 in the Spokane Regional final and preventing their 19th trip to the Final Four. It will be the Terrapins' fifth Final Four and second in a row.
Tennessee's last Final Four appearance was in 2008 in Tampa, and the Lady Vols would have met UConn in the semifinals in that Florida city this coming Sunday had they gotten past the Terps. It would have been the first meeting between the Huskies and Lady Vols since former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt ended their series amid much acrimony in 2007.
But it wasn't to be, and now, we get a Final Four that looks a lot like last year's in Nashville, Tennessee, with UConn, Notre Dame and Maryland again, plus one high-profile newcomer. That's South Carolina, which advanced out of the Greensboro Regional as Dawn Staley became just the second person to both play and coach in a women's Final Four.
She might have been facing the other person who has done that -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey -- but the Lady Bears were unable to upset Notre Dame in the Oklahoma City Regional.
The Fighting Irish advanced to their fifth consecutive Final Four, and they will take on South Carolina in the first semifinal Sunday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET) in Tampa. Last year, Notre Dame was unbeaten going into the championship game against UConn, but the Huskies dominated for their ninth NCAA title.
Monday, UConn got a teensy-weensy bit of a scare, as the Huskies trailed Dayton by one point at halftime of the final of the Albany Regional. But then, the Huskies climbed into their steamroller for the second half, winning 91-70. UConn advances to its 16th Final Four -- its eighth in a row -- and seeks to win in one of the few cities in which coach Geno Auriemma has a bad memory of the postseason.
At the 2008 Final Four in Tampa, UConn fell to Stanford in the semifinals. Then, Tennessee beat the Cardinal in the final for Summitt's eighth and last title. She moved to a head coach emeritus role after the 2011-12 season following a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
In January 2007, the Lady Vols defeated UConn 70-64, which left the series record 13-9 in the Huskies' favor. The rivalry, which famously began in January 1995 with a nationally televised Martin Luther King Jr. Day game, has yet to resume.
However, should UConn and Notre Dame win on Sunday, we'll get a matchup of a rivalry that has just about as much rancor as Huskies-Lady Vols. Former Big East members UConn and Notre Dame don't like each other, and neither do their fan bases. Last year's Final Four "narrative" got hijacked by barbs traded between Auriemma and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.
Now, the Huskies are in the American Athletic Conference, in which it's virtually impossible for them to lose a game, and the Irish are in the ACC, in which they've lost just one game in two seasons. UConn leads the series 31-11, but the Irish have beaten the Huskies twice at a Final Four: in the 2011 and '12 semifinals. In 2013, the Huskies beat Notre Dame in the semifinals, and last year's championship score was 79-58 UConn.
But Maryland and South Carolina will do their best to try to prevent another UConn-Notre Dame feud. The Terps won the 2006 NCAA championship while in the ACC and also went to the Final Four in 1982, 1989 and last year as a member of that league. This season, they took over, er, moved into, the Big Ten, in which they went undefeated and won the league tournament.
Thanks to the newcomer Terps, the Big Ten has its first Final Four team since 2005. Meanwhile, South Carolina ends a Final Four drought for the SEC, which was last represented by Tennessee and LSU in 2008.
UConn leads its series with Maryland 3-0, including a victory in the 2013 Sweet 16. The Huskies are a team seemingly without a weakness, led by the point guard brilliance of Moriah Jefferson (181 assists), the sharpshooting of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (118-of-236, 50 percent, from 3-point range), and the all-around unstoppability of Breanna Stewart, who leads the Huskies in scoring (17.6 PPG) and rebounding (7.6 RPG).
Mosqueda-Lewis became the NCAA's career leader in 3-pointers in Monday's victory; she can now add to her total of 395 while pursuing another NCAA title. Stewart has been the Final Four's most outstanding player the past two years. UConn lost two starters, Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley, to the WNBA off last season's title team but hasn't missed a beat -- save a November loss at Stanford.
Maryland lost its all-time scoring leader, Alyssa Thomas, to the WNBA draft after last season. Now, the Terps don't have one player who is that dominant and are instead a more balanced attack, led by strong guard play from Laurin Mincy (13.8 PPG), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (13.5 PPG) and Lexie Brown (13.4 PPG).
Notre Dame and South Carolina have met just three times and only once that involved both current coaches. That was at the Paradise Jam in the Bahamas in November 2009, the start of Staley's second season with the Gamecocks. The Fighting Irish won that game 78-55; Notre Dame would finish that season 29-6 and fall in the NCAA Sweet 16. It was the last year before the start of their current run of five Final Four appearances in a row.
The Irish had a pretty good battle with Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional final, winning 77-68, but it didn't have the down-to-the-wire drama that both of South Carolina's regional games did. In the semifinals of the Greensboro Regional against North Carolina, the Gamecocks trailed with just more than a minute left before rallying to win 67-65 on Tiffany Mitchell's layup with about four seconds left. In the final against Florida State, South Carolina spent much of the game trailing before grabbing the lead with just less than two minutes left and holding on for dear life. A late steal and layup made for an 80-74 final score.
In the end, though, the bottom line is that both the Irish and the Gamecocks are here, and they're talented teams.
South Carolina's Mitchell and Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd were players of the year in their respective leagues, and both were also WBCA All-Americans last year as sophomores.
Both are 5-foot-9 guards with superb athleticism and a natural knack for scoring. Loyd, who is averaging 19.9 points, carries a bigger load. She has taken 205 more shots this season than Mitchell, who averages 14.5. Loyd is shooting 45.3 percent from the field, Mitchell 50.1 percent.
In the "younger star" category on both teams are post players Alaina Coates and Brianna Turner.
Coates, a 6-4 sophomore, was the Greensboro Regional most valuable player after compiling 32 points and 13 rebounds in the two games. Coates is the Gamecocks' third-leading scorer this season (11.1 PPG) and leading rebounder (7.9 RPG).
The 6-3 freshman Turner has been Notre Dame's second-leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and leading rebounder (7.8 RPG). Turner had a combined 24 points and 17 rebounds in the Oklahoma City Regional games.
But the "unexpected" standout in OKC was Irish guard Lindsay Allen, who was fantastic in the semifinal victory against Stanford and somehow even more impressive against Baylor. Allen's regional report card: 51 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds equal an A-plus.
Her teammates' play helped during a regional in which Loyd wasn't as much a superwoman as she typically is, and that's a great sign for the Irish. Notre Dame isn't quite as deep as South Carolina, but the Irish certainly have more than enough talent to make another strong run at the national championship game.
That would be the fifth for the Irish, who won in 2001 over Purdue but lost in the final to Texas A&M in 2011, to Baylor in 2012 and to UConn in 2014.
All that said, to be frank, there's still not much to suggest this isn't UConn's championship to lose. When even the sternest test they've faced so far in this NCAA tournament still resulted in a 21-point victory, the Huskies seem very determined to take title No. 10.
Can they be stopped? That's what we'll find out starting Sunday.