By DOUG FEINBERG, Associated Press
Brittney Griner and Baylor have been gearing up all season long to make a run at a national championship.
They've blown through their first 34 opponents en route to a perfect season so far. Now the top-seeded Lady Bears are six victories from becoming the seventh team to go unbeaten and win the school's second national championship.
Anything short of an NCAA women's basketball title would be considered a major disappointment.
"This is what we've talked about all year, these six basketball games," Mulkey said. "Everybody's healthy today and you're headed in with a focus like none other than I've seen in a while. It's reflected in how we're playing right now, and we just want to continue it."
Standing in the way could be the other No. 1 seeds — Stanford, Connecticut and Notre Dame, dominant all season long. The Huskies and Irish both lost competitive games at Baylor this season.
Griner and Baylor, who lost in the regional final last season, could be the first team ever to win 40 games in a year, but coach Kim Mulkey only cares about one thing — a second national title for the school.
"We started hearing about that, and it's never been a goal of ours," Mulkey said of winning 40 games. "Our simple goal is to win a national championship."
The basketball madness gets started Saturday — the first step en route to the Final Four, which begins April 1 in Denver. Baylor will open up against UC Santa Barbara.
To get to their second Final Four in three seasons, the Lady Bears might have to get through Tennessee, which is appearing in its 31st straight NCAA tournament.
"I wish I was not in the same bracket as Pat (Summitt), because of the respect I have and also because we've already played," Mulkey said.
The two teams met in November, and Tennessee held an eight-point lead early in the second half before Griner took over en route to a nine-point victory.
The 6-foot-8 center has been dominant lately scoring more than 40 points twice in the past 10 games, including a 45-point effort in the Big 12 tournament semifinals this past weekend.
The Lady Vols have won eight national championships, but haven't been to the Final Four in three seasons. They pledged at the beginning of the season that they would not go a fourth consecutive year without reaching the Final Four — something they've never done — and would try to win a national title to honor Pat Summitt. The coach announced in August she'd been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Summitt's squad will face her alma mater — Tennessee Martin — in the opener.
"I like my alma mater," Summitt said. "I like winning and moving on better."
Before a potential matchup with Baylor, Tennessee could meet Delaware and the nation's leading scorer Elena Delle Donne. The 6-5 star is averaging 27.5 points this season and has guided the Blue Hens to a 30-1 mark.
Now they are looking for their first NCAA tournament victory.
Connecticut hopes to win its eighth national championship (tying Tennessee) and will start with a matchup against Prairie View.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma told the Huskies' faithful in the preseason that this team wouldn't win a national championship. But his young team has developed over the past five months, and Connecticut looks poised to make another run after beating Notre Dame for the Big East tournament title.
"If you have to rely just on momentum then you don't have a good enough team," Auriemma said. "We've got to hope we have a good enough team and then rely on momentum as an extra asset."
The Irish also have been focused on winning a title after falling just short last season, losing in the championship game to Texas A&M, which is a No. 3 seed in the Raleigh region. The two teams could meet in the regional final.
Notre Dame, which will open up at home against Liberty, reached the national title game last year by knocking off UConn in the Final Four. It was the fourth straight season that UConn made the Final Four. The two teams, who already have played three times this year, could meet for a fourth time in Denver.
The Cardinal also have advanced four straight seasons to the Final Four, and coach Tara VanDerveer is looking to get her first title in 20 years. She'll begin with a trip East to Norfolk, Va., to face Hampton. Stanford, which has won 28 straight games since its lone loss of the season to Connecticut, hasn't been east of the Rockies since 2001, when it went to Oklahoma.
"Well last year at this time I don't think anyone thought Texas A&M was going to win either," VanDerveer said. "Baylor has had a great year. I think that Brittney Griner is a great player, she's a tremendous talent. We know that every team is beatable. I hope we have a chance to play them. We want to go as far as we can. If that means playing Baylor, we'll be ready."
Standing in the way of a fifth trip to the Final Four could be second-seed Duke, which lost in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. The Blue Devils are led by talented freshman post Elizabeth Williams and sophomore guard Chelsea Grey and will face Samford in the opening round.
Another intriguing team in that region is third-seeded St. John's, which ended UConn's 99-game home-court winning streak in February. The Red Storm have won 14 of their last 17 games, falling to the Huskies in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. Third-seeded St. John's faces Creighton in its opener.
Missing from the tournament is North Carolina, which is hosting the first two rounds, but didn't make the field for the first time since 2001.
While the Tar Heels will be missing, three schools — Albany, St. Bonaventure and Florida Gulf Coast — are making their first appearance, and the Big Ten has a conference record seven teams.
The Bonnies and Eagles will be meeting in the first round.
Follow Doug Feinberg on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dougfeinberg
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