NCAA women’s Final Four: Notre Dame, Baylor reach title game

The No. 1 overall seed survives. So has the defending champion.

Notre Dame is back in the NCAA women’s basketball title game, defeating their rival and powerhouse No. 2 seed Connecticut 81-76 in the Final Four at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on Friday.

Meeting the Fighting Irish in Sunday’s championship is a formidable foe. Baylor — the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament — fended off No. 2 seed Oregon 72-67 in the first national semifinal earlier in the day.

With the win, No. 1 seed Notre Dame (35-3) has now knocked off the 11-time champion Huskies for the second consecutive Final Four. The Fighting Irish won the title last year in thrilling fashion with last-second shots by Arike Ogunbowale in the semifinal and championship games against UConn and Mississippi State, respectively.

Notre Dame’s starters all scored in double figures on Friday, with senior guard Ogunbowale leading the way with 23 points, including key baskets late. Senior forward Jessica Shepard had 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, while graduate student forward Brianna Turner had 15 points and 15 rebounds.

“My only mindset was that UConn’s season was going to end tonight,” Turner, who sat out last year’s Final Four with a torn ACL, said to ESPN.

The Bears and Fighting Irish each are aiming for their third title. In addition to last season, Notre Dame also won in 2001, while Baylor won it all in 2012 and 2005.

UConn (35-3), in the Final Four for the 12th consecutive year and 20th all time, has bowed out at this stage for the third year in a row.

Senior guard Katie Lou Samuelson led UConn with 20 points. Freshman guard Christyn Williams had 19 points, while senior forward Napheesa Collier had 15 points and 13 rebounds.

The championship game is Sunday at 6 pm ET.

For Baylor (36-1), junior forward Lauren Cox flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. She also had two steals and blocked two shots. Senior center Kalani Brown had 22 points, while sophomore guard DiDi Richards added 15.

Baylor, on a 28-game winning streak, hasn’t lost since falling at Stanford in December. Heading into Friday, the Bears had won their NCAA tournament games by an average of 38.2 points.

But Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey didn’t sound worried in the slightest about her players not being in a close game in ages.

“I think y’all wondered,” she said to reporters. “I didn’t.”

For Oregon (33-5), it was the team’s first Final Four — and possibly the final game for star Ducks point guard Sabrina Ionescu, who finished with 18 points.

Although it’s uncommon for women’s basketball players to turn professional while still having college eligibility, Ionescu, a junior who will be 22 years old in December, isn’t your typical talent. She’s considered the top pick of the WNBA draft should she decide to leave school early.

Ionescu is the all-time NCAA leader — for women and men — with 18 career triple-doubles. She also has the single-season triple-double record, with eight.

Ionescu’s parents moved from Romania to northern California in 1990 after the Romanian Revolution. Seven years later, Ionescu and her twin brother, Eddy, were born. Her first language was Romanian, which she used when playing with her brother in basketball games.

Her talent hasn’t gone unnoticed in the NBA, with Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry recently giving Ionescu praise, saying, “She’s a legend in her own right.”

Ionescu told reporters Friday she hasn’t given thought to next season. The WNBA draft is Wednesday.