NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Coach Brenda Frese and her Maryland Terrapins have had the toughest road to the Final Four, knocking off a No. 1 seed and then beating Louisville on its home court in a regional final.
Now the Terps can derail the highly anticipated showdown of unbeatens in the national title game.
Fourth-seeded Maryland plays Notre Dame on Sunday with both national semifinals featuring rematches. UConn beat Stanford in November, while Maryland let Notre Dame escape 87-83 on Jan. 27 in College Park.
The Terrapins are led by All-American Alyssa Thomas and reviving memories of their lone title in 2006 in their first Final Four since that year after beating Tennessee and Louisville. Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said Wednesday winning in front of a crowd of 14,000 was impressive.
"They're very dangerous," McGraw said of the Terps. "I think they're a great team. They're a team that has really, really kind of hit their stride lately. I think they're playing great basketball, and when you have a great player like Alyssa Thomas who just really continues to lead them in so many areas, they're a tough match-up."
Notre Dame had Natalie Achonwa in the first game, but foul trouble limited the forward to 21 minutes and seven points. That might ease the Irish's concern after losing their top rebounder. The Irish shot 58.5 percent that night, but Thomas scored 29 points in helping the Terrapins come back from a 41-19 deficit and even taking a lead before Notre Dame pulled out the win to remain perfect on the season.
McGraw said she would have preferred Maryland didn't come back at all. The Notre Dame coach believes that game might have been a turning point for the Terps, especially for freshman guard Lexie Brown — daughter of former NBA dunk champ Dee Brown.
Frese credits that game, along with a loss to UConn, with giving her Terrapins the confidence they could play with anyone, a process helped by the two-week break after a loss to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Stanford had to hold off North Carolina 74-65 on Tuesday night at Maples Pavilion to advance to Nashville.
"The expectations are high with Notre Dame and UConn for a reason," Frese said. "They've backed it up all season long with their undefeated record. But we just want to be true to who we are and continue to keep fighting and battling and scrapping and see where it takes us."
Stanford is in its 12th Final Four, and coach Tara VanDerveer has plenty of experience facing UConn at this stage. The Cardinal lost in the 2009 national semifinals and the 2010 title game, though Stanford did snap the Huskies' 90-game winning streak late in 2010.
UConn has won 44 straight games in getting back to a seventh straight Final Four, but coach Geno Auriemma sees a difference in Stanford from Nov. 11 when his Huskies won 76-57 in Storrs.
"If anybody thinks, well, yeah, we're going to play the same Stanford team that we played in November, they're kidding," Auriemma said.
VanDerveer has All-American Chiney Ogwumike, but the coach hadn't settled on a rotation in Stanford's third game of the season. Now freshman starter Lili Thompson is the third-leading scorer and shut down Penn State's Maggie Lucas in the regional semifinal before harassing Diamond DeShields of North Carolina in the regional final.
Stanford wants to disrupt this Final Four just as much as Maryland in search of their first title since 1992.
"I'm really glad that we did play them early in the season, and I feel like our team is playing with a lot of confidence," VanDerveer said. "We're looking forward to the rematch, and I think people, players in the tournament just kind of resent a little bit of the inevitability. Like why have the tournament if it's inevitable? We definitely want to be party crashers."
So do her players.
"Nobody expects us to win and that just fuels us," Stanford fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef said. "We're going to go out and have fun."