RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tonight in New Orleans, it is the women's turn to put on a college basketball show at the Final Four. Traditional powers UConn and Notre Dame face off in one semifinal. The other semi features a couple of newbies: California and Louisville. And as NPR's Tom Goldman explains, the women's field is changing.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: A women's Final Four without Baylor or Stanford or Tennessee? That's happened only one other time in the last dozen years. We've become so used to it being a power party, it's downright disorienting. Or maybe that's just vertigo from trying to track the movements of the Final Four's breakout star, Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel. She's a big reason why two of those teams - Tennessee and Baylor - aren't in New Orleans.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For the lead...
GOLDMAN: By the time Schimmel raced the length of the court against Baylor and flipped the ball in with her back to the basket, all the ESPN commentator could say...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...and over. Shoni Schimmel scores over Brittney.
SHONI SCHIMMEL: I just put the ball in the hoop. I mean, nothing too special.
GOLDMAN: Maybe not for Schimmel, but the playground move over a foot-taller Brittney Griner in the upset win over Baylor became the signature moment of the tournament. After Schimmel's younger sister and teammate Jude helped the Cardinals slay another giant, Tennessee, Louisville had qualified for just its second Final Four. And Geno Auriemma, coach of seven-time champion Connecticut, was sold on the Schimmels, who are part Native American raised on a reservation in eastern Oregon. Although, coach was a bit sketchy on geography.
GENO AURIEMMA: I don't know if you got to take a helicopter in there or whether you need guides or something to get in there, but I told Jeff Walz this morning, I got to get a couple of those players for myself.
GOLDMAN: Planes and cars did the trick for Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who recruited Shoni with the message that she was good enough to play anywhere. But at Louisville, he said, she'd have the freedom to play the street ball style she loves.
JEFF WALZ: Because I know sometimes she might throw one up into the crowd, but I also know she's got the ability to come down off the break and shoot one from 24 feet that some people might think is a bad shot. But that's her game, and you got to be willing to let players play their game.
GOLDMAN: Head coach Lindsay Gottlieb has done that, too, at the University of California...
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GOLDMAN: ...which qualified earlier this week for its first-ever Final Four, thanks in part, says Gottlieb, to its resident baller, point guard Brittney Boyd.
LINDSAY GOTTLIEB: She's really good for basketball. She's flashy, she's tough, she's quick with the ball, she's a great passer. Her on the court at the same time with Shoni, there's going to be a lot of pictures taken.
GOLDMAN: But probably not as many as during the nightcap, the heavyweight matchup between UConn and Notre Dame. The Big East rivals already have played three times this season; the Irish won each game, but only by one point and two points and in triple overtime. While UConn coach Auriemma says those three wins can give Notre Dame a psychological edge, the fact that each game was razor close means his team has to shore up just a few things. Not sure the Huskies have to change anything at this point, however. They've won their four tournament games by an average of 39 points. This semi-final feels like a final considering the basketball pedigree involved. But as Cal and Louisville have shown, this is not a year for pedigree. And whether it's the fast-paced, tenacious rebounding team from the West Coast or the three-point bombers from Kentucky, one of them will have a shot at a title. And in what was supposed to be another predictable women's season, who could've predicted that? Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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