Irish begin title quest in Iowa City
IOWA CITY – Notre Dame came into the season with a few goals. Now with two of the main ones accomplished, the Irish can turn their attention to the NCAA tournament.
Top-seeded Notre Dame (31-1) starts its quest to return to the Final Four on Sunday against Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee Martin (19-14) in the first-round of the NCAAs at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In the other first-round game, eighth-seeded Miami (21-10) takes on host Iowa (20-12), one of 13 schools in the nation to play in its sixth straight NCAA tournament.
The Irish, who are riding a school record 26-game winning streak, have made the NCAA title game the past two seasons falling both times. Now the Irish hope to get back there again and get the school’s second national championship.
McGraw said her team’s resiliency and chronic state of dissatisfaction has fueled their success. The Fighting Irish never stop searching for ways to improve.
“They come in after a win and we’re going to watch what we did wrong,” McGraw said. “We don’t really look at what we’re doing well so much as how we can get better, and this team relishes that. They love to be challenged. They want to get better.”
Notre Dame swept the Big East Conference regular season and tournament titles, becoming the first school other than Connecticut to accomplish the feat since 1993.
The Fighting Irish’s lone loss this season came at home to top-ranked Baylor back on Dec. 5. Notre Dame hasn’t lost since despite being tested with three wins against UConn, two against Louisville and others against Tennessee and Purdue.
“We understand what it takes to get there,” senior Skylar Diggins said. “The conference schedule that we play is so tough. I’ve said this before – you’re playing elite level Final Four, Sweet 16 games all the time. I think ultimately that’s what really prepared us for the tournament.”
Notre Dame averages 80.8 points per game and boasts a balanced offense. Ten of the 11 players on the roster have scored in double figures at least once, including five with 20-point games.
The three-time All-American Diggins leads the Fighting Irish with 17 points and almost six assists per game. The senior guard is 52 points shy of the school’s career scoring mark.
Notre Dame shouldn’t intimidate Tennessee Martin.
The Skyhawks played Baylor, Stanford, Louisville and Purdue during their nonconference schedule.
Tennessee Martin is the only team in the nation with two top-10 scorers. Jasmine Newsome (22.9 points per game) and Health Butler (22) account for more than 60 percent of the scoring by the Skyhawks.
The guards weren’t heavily recruited, perhaps because of their size.
“They look more like cheerleaders than basketball players,” Tennessee Martin coach Kevin McMillan said.
The 5-foot-5 Butler played for McMillan in high school. The 5-6 Newsome’s dad reached out to McMillan after paying close attention to his career path from nearby Millington, Tenn.
Iowa and Miami have a lot of similarities. Both teams have registered big wins and weathered tough stretches, and they both have the flexibility to score inside and outside.
The Hawkeyes once had more wins against ranked opponents than any other team in the country. Iowa lost six of seven games later in the season before pulling a few wins out at the end to secure the NCAA bid.
The Hurricanes knocked off top 10 teams Penn State and Duke. Miami also dropped five games in January.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder was savoring the opportunity to play at home, where the Hawkeyes ranked in the top 20 in attendance this season. She planned to have the team over to her house for lasagna and chicken.
“This afternoon was kind of weird,” Bluder said. “I’m at home cleaning my kitchen. Not sure if that’s what most coaches are doing during NCAA tournament time.”
Miami coach Katie Meier once dreamed of playing for the Hawkeyes as a high school guard in Wheaton, Ill., after two of her sisters and a brother attended school at Iowa.
Meier ended up at Duke after then-Iowa coach Vivian Stringer didn’t offer a scholarship. Meier admitted she probably wasn’t good enough.
“I’m not bitter,” Meier joked. “I still have the letter – no, just kidding, I don’t.”