NASHVILLE — They have arrived here in the Music City — Connecticut from the American Athletic Conference and Notre Dame from the Atlantic Coast Conference — undefeated and on a collision course to play in the championship game of the NCAA women’s Final Four.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of hype around with two undefeated teams in the Final Four meeting up in the national championship,’’ said Stefanie Dolson, UConn’s 6-foot-5-inch senior forward who, along with senior guard Bria Hartley, will make her fourth consecutive Final Four appearance. “For us, we don’t think about that. We just take it game by game. We always have. It’s something that we emphasize during the season and we go into the tournament the same way.’’
The Huskies (38-0), the top seed and champion of the Lincoln Regional, will face Stanford (33-3), the No. 2 seed of its own regional, on Sunday night. The Huskies defeated the Cardinal, 76-57, Nov. 11 at Gampel Pavilion.
It will be the sixth time UConn has faced Stanford in the NCAA Tournament and fifth time in the Final Four. In three previous semifinal meetings, UConn is 2-1.
“They are a smart team and have good inside and outside presence,’’ said Breanna Stewart, UConn’s leading scorer (19.4 points per game) who was named the Associated Press player of the year Saturday. She’s just the third sophomore to win the award.
“We have to make sure we know who their 3-point shooters are and contain Chiney [Ogwumike],’’ Stewart said, referring to Stanford’s scoring (26.4) and rebounding (12.1) leader. “I’m sure Stanford is trying to get us back since we got them earlier in the season, but that was four or five months back.’’
Notre Dame (36-0), winner of the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in its inaugural season in the conference, will encounter league foe Maryland (28-6) in the first semifinal Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. The Irish’s closest margin of victory this season was an 87-83 win at Maryland Jan. 27.
“It’s not going to be a walkover in the semifinals, I don’t think,’’ said Rebecca Lobo, an ESPN analyst and former UConn great from Southwick, Mass. “I think Stanford is going to give Connecticut a pretty tough game, and I think Maryland is going to give Notre Dame a great game.’’
The Irish, however, will be without 6-3 senior forward Natalie Achonwa, their third-leading scorer (14.9) and top rebounder (7.7). Achonwa suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in Notre Dame’s 88-69 victory over Baylor in the final of the Notre Dame Regional.
So, who will have the tougher task in the semis?
“Notre Dame,’’ Lobo said, without hesitation. “Notre Dame is only going to have four days of practice without Achonwa. That’s it. You have four days to learn how to win without a really big part of your team, so I think it’s going to be really difficult.’’
Facing a Terrapin team that is led by 6-2 senior Alyssa Thomas, a three-time ACC Player of the Year who led Maryland with 19.1 points and 11.0 rebounds, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw will throw into the breach 6-3 freshman Taya Reimer, who averages 7.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks.
“Tay has been in every big game,’’ said McGraw, who on Saturday was named AP coach of the year for the second straight season. “She comes in pretty quickly off the bench. So she’s had a lot of minutes. We’ve had some times with Natalie in foul trouble that she’s had to go a little bit longer. So I think we definitely have played a lot of minutes with Taya in the game.’’
Should the Irish advance, they fully expect to see UConn, which is on a 44-game winning streak.
“I think this team, for whatever it’s worth, I don’t know what it’s going to be tomorrow, but the team’s a lot more confident and sure of itself than last year’s team,’’ said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has guided the Huskies to eight national championships, four of them in undefeated seasons.
“Last year, I think we were determined but there was still a little bit of doubt,’’ Auriemma said. “And I get the feeling from this particular team that there isn’t any doubt in their mind that we’re the best team here.
“Whether or not that plays out, I don’t know. But right now, that’s the mind-set that I see.’’