NEW ORLEANS — The subtitle to the 2013 women’s Final Four might as well be: The Big East throws one last bash in the Big Easy.
Three of the four teams — Connecticut, Louisville and Notre Dame — hail from a league that has long thrived in both women’s and men’s college basketball, but which is breaking apart after this season.
“I guess the shout-out should go out to all the (university) presidents for having the foresight to tear apart the greatest basketball conference that ever existed,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma sarcastically said during a women’s Final Four coaches conference call Wednesday, noting that two teams in the men’s Final Four (Louisville and Syracuse) also are from the Big East. “But I guess it’s a great swan song.
“If it’s going to end, this is a great way for it to end,” he said.
At this point, only California of the Pac-12 could spoil the party for those who want to see the current Big East take home one last women’s national title, which would be its ninth.
Connecticut is the only one of the three current Big East teams in the women’s Final Four that is currently committed to remaining in the conference, which is adding a handful of new schools, losing others (including Notre Dame this summer and Louisville in 2014) and changing names — it will be the American Athletic Conference.
Still, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said her team takes pride in being part of a league that has three teams left standing, and which will have at least one team in the final after Notre Dame and UConn meet in a third straight national semifinal on Sunday night.
“I’m thrilled for the Big East. I think it proves we were the best conference,” McGraw said. “I don’t think that there was any question when you have two No. 1 seeds coming out of the same conference. But to see Louisville join us in the Final Four I think shows what depth and strength we had in the Big East.
“It’s a little sad to think that next year we’ll be gone, the year after Louisville will be gone,” McGraw added. “A shame it has to end, but what a way to go out.”
And perhaps there could be no better place to go out than New Orleans, where funerals routinely take the form of festive jazz “second line” parades.
Auriemma certainly knows what it’s like to celebrate in the Big Easy.
This will be the third women’s Final Four held in New Orleans, and all three have involved UConn teams coached by Auriemma. Connecticut lost in the semifinals in 1991, but won it all in 2004, punctuated by Diana Taurasi punting the ball into the New Orleans Arena stands as the clock hit zero against Tennessee.
In order to celebrate another title in the Crescent City, UConn will have to find a way past a Notre Dame squad that defeated the Huskies in each of the last two national semifinals and in all three meetings this season.
“It’s a familiar place for us, fortunately,” Auriemma said. “Familiar opponent, unfortunately.”
Auriemma said a part of him would like to see a reseeding of remaining teams for Final Fours. At the same time, he recognizes the allure of the “Cinderella story” that will accompany either underdog Louisville or Final Four newcomer Cal to Tuesday night’s championship game.
“One of them is going to be playing in the national championship. And that’s something that I’m sure very, very few people predicted,” Auriemma said. “So that’s just part of the NCAA tournament’s beauty.”
To get to New Orleans, Louisville stunned star center Brittney Griner and defending champion Baylor, then vanquished Southeastern Conference power Tennessee.
“We’re a group right now that I think has done things that no one thought could be done,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “We’re at a point right now where we do believe if we show up and compete and follow game plan and believe in each other, we can beat anybody. But, at the same time, we also know if we don’t show up and we’re not all on the same page, we’re able to be beaten by anybody. We’re just not talented enough to just go out there, roll the ball out and say, `Hey, let’s play.”’
Cal was seeded second in the Spokane Region, but wound up avoiding a matchup with top-seed Stanford when the Cardinal was upset by Georgia. Cal then rode a second-half rally to an overtime victory over Georgia.
Golden Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb said that while her players talk about their eagerness to indulge in the French doughnuts, called beignets, that are popular New Orleans treats, they also are serious about representing the West Coast.
“There’s an additional sense of pride in that,” Gottlieb said, noting that nearly all of her players are California natives. “It is a neat dynamic to be the outsiders, to be the West Coast kids.”
Still, Gottlieb understands why this is a time when college basketball fans are bound to be sentimental about the Big East, having grown up in the region. She attended Brown before taking her first coaching job at Syracuse.
“It’s just the way it is right now with conference alignment, realignment,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, just because growing up on the East Coast I would watch those games and the rivalries.
“But obviously, for this weekend, we’re focused on just trying to take care of our business.”