Last year at this time, the women’s basketball tournament was thought to be a foregone conclusion. Undefeated UConn was the heavy favorite, and it did not seem like any other team was going to be able to stop them. They coasted their way into the Final Four, beating teams handily including a twenty-nine-point victory in the Elite Eight over South Carolina, and they had their sights set on a twelfth national championship in school history. The Huskies finally met a comparable opponent in the Final Four, as they faced off against long-time rival Notre Dame. The two powerhouses battled it out for the full forty minutes before overtime was needed to settle the winner. Instead of UConn winning their thirty-seventh straight game and progressing to the national championship game, however, it was Notre Dame that won due to Arike Ogunbowale’s late shot in the extra period. The Irish would go on to win the title game against Mississippi State on another late shot by Obunbowale, and they have effectively stopped UConn’s run of dominance for the time being.
Notre Dame seems to be the slight favorite heading into the tournament this year. They are the 1-seed in the Chicago Region, and although they are not the number one overall seed for the tournament, most experts see them as the team to beat. On paper, the team seems complete. They have returned most of the team that won the national championship last year, and they boast one of the best and most experienced players in the country in Arike Ogunbowale. In addition, they have many talented, experienced starters that have dominated some of the other high-ranked teams in the ACC. Jackie Young, a guard who can do everything for the Irish, Jessica Shepherd, a forward who can dominate in the post, and Marina Mabrey, a senior who is a lights-out shooter, all contribute to a dominant starting lineup that is sure to give opposing defenses fits.
The road to retain the national championship for the Irish does not pose many threats until the Elite Eight. A potential matchup with Stanford in Chicago could be the first time the Irish are truly tested in this tournament, and it will sure to be a tight game. Because it is in Chicago, Notre Dame’s backyard, though, the Irish will be the favorites to progress in this round. Then, in the Final Four, there will be many talented teams waiting to get their shot at the Irish. The two most likely opponents, UConn and Louisville, will each be looking for their own form of revenge. UConn will still be motivated by their loss last season to the Irish in the Final Four, and they will be eager to knock them out in this year’s tournament. Louisville has lost twice to the Irish this season including in the ACC championship game, and both losses have come by double digits, making them sure to want another shot at Notre Dame. On the other side of the Final Four, one of top-seeded Baylor, last year’s runner-up Mississippi State, and the ever-talented Oregon will likely be waiting in the national championship game, a game where, as shown by recent history, anything can happen.
In the end, I predict that it will be Notre Dame winning the tournament and repeating as national champions. The Irish have won their last nine games, and their offense has been clicking, scoring more at least 89 points in every game during that stretch. There will certainly be many challenges along the way, but the Irish have the tournament experience and talent at every position will help to guide them to the ultimate goal. And so, in a year where the field seems wide open, it will be the reigning champions who take home the crown once more.