TAMPA, Fla. — The Ducks added some new blood to the Final Four.
But two blue-blood programs in women’s basketball, Baylor and Notre Dame, will play for the national championship Sunday at Amalie Arena (3 p.m., ESPN).
The Bears (36-1), the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, advanced with a 72-67 victory over Oregon in the national semifinals Friday.
Before having a conversation with Sabrina Ionescu in the handshake line, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey crouched down on the court and soaked up the moment as her players celebrated.
“I just looked at ‘em and thought, ‘This is why you coach,’” Mulkey said. “I think I’ve done that before, just taking the moment. Those kids have never been to a Final Four. They were going to play for a national championship. I just wanted to watch them.”
Mulkey coached Baylor to NCAA titles in 2005 and 2012. This is the first time the program has made it back to the Final Four since her team went 40-0 seven years ago.
“I have a locker room of unbelievable competitors, but it’s a totally different personality than the 2012 team,” Mulkey said. “It’s my job to figure it out and adjust to them when it comes to motivation and how to get the most out of them.”
The defending national champion Irish (35-3), who lost to UConn by 18 points during the regular season, ended their longtime rival’s season with a dramatic 81-76 comeback victory in the national semifinal.
“The journey this year has been difficult for different reasons than it was last year,” coach Muffet McGraw said after dancing an Irish jig following Friday’s win at Geno Auriemma’s expense. “I think the expectation always weighs a little heavier on you. I don't think it weighed quite as heavy on the players as it did on the staff because we kept thinking, 'We're supposed to win, be here.’
“After we beat Stanford (in the Elite Eight), I think it was a big feeling of relief, more so than excitement. After (the UConn) win, I think the excitement is definitely back.”
Arike Ogunbowale, who made back-to-back buzzer-beaters at last year’s Final Four to will Notre Dame to the title, scored 14 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter to send the 11-time champion Huskies packing.
“I don't think it was any mystery who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter," Auriemma said. "It's the way they've always played since Arike's been there. She still has to make those shots and she did. She's an almost impossible matchup one-on-one.”
Brianna Turner, who sat out last season with a knee injury, also came up with a key block of a layup attempt by Napheesa Collier to help the Irish hold off UConn in the final minute.
Notre Dame’s front line will face its biggest test of the season against Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. Baylor’s 6-foot-7 center and 6-4 forward combined for 43 points on 18-for-26 shooting against the Ducks.
“They present a lot of problems,” McGraw said. “This is the first time we've played a team that has two outstanding post players. We've generally thought we had an abnormal advantage in the post. That would be our game plan, to go inside. We do not feel that way. They have terrific players inside with Lauren Cox and Kalani.”
The Bears held Oregon to 36.8% from the field. Ionescu scored a team-high 18 points but on 6-for-24 shooting, which was good practice for Baylor ahead of the matchup with Notre Dame’s accomplished backcourt of Ogunbowale, Jackie Young and Marina Mabrey.
“It definitely gives us confidence,” said guard Juicy Landrum, who held the Ducks’ first-team all-American to 0-for-7 shooting in the fourth quarter. “Once again shutting down Sabrina, another great player, one of the best in the country.
“Our main goal is to keep (Notre Dame’s) guards under their average and maybe that will help us win the game.”
Baylor defeated Notre Dame for the title in 2012, which was the last time two female coaches competed in the national championship game.
During her Thursday press conference, McGraw said as long as 99% of coaching jobs in men’s college basketball are going to men, then the same should hold true for women in women’s basketball.
“I think when we lost Pat Summit we lost an icon. We also did lose the spokeswoman for our game,” McGraw said of the legendary Tennessee coach. “I’ve just felt the need to be able to stand up and express some things that I thought needed to be said. I think she would have said them or she would have been certainly another voice that would step up and say them.
“I think our game needs somebody that's willing to step out because the platform that I've been lucky to have. I thought it was a great time to say it.”