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McGraw: Notre Dame ‘starting to peak’

Laura Myers | Friday, March 18, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — Notre Dame has come within a basket of defeating some of the toughest teams in the country this season. The team has reached as high as No. 7 in the AP polls and now has earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

In a sport whose powerhouses don’t change often, what’s left for this year’s Irish is to prove they belong in conversations about the best of the best.

“I think we’re starting to peak now,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think we had some tough games in November that we learned a lot from. I think this team continues to improve every day.

“We take each game and we look at it, and we say ‘how can we get better today?’ The NCAA tournament is about survive and advance.”

That process begins today against No. 15-seed Utah.

The Irish (26-7) will face the Utes (18-16) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Utah following the game between No. 7-seed Arizona State and No. 10-seed Temple. The winners from each game will play Monday night.

McGraw said she expects her team to begin the game “a little rusty,” because they have not played since the Big East championship game on March 8, nearly two weeks ago.

“I think we have a lot of momentum heading into the NCAA tournament, but it’s been a long time since we’ve played and we are anxious to get started,” McGraw said.

Utah won four games in five days to capture the Mountain West tournament title in order to make the NCAA field. Their run included strong play from sophomore Iwalani Rodrigues, who made 44.4 percent of her 3-point shots this season, and late-game heroics from star freshman Michelle Plouffe.

“You have a great player in Plouffe, who knows how to take over games and really wants to take those big shots and has really been a key to keeping her team in some of those close games,” sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins said. “We understand we have to really lock down on defense.”

The key to doing so, Diggins said, is keeping junior forward Devereaux Peters, the Big East defensive player of the year, in the game.

“She’s the X-factor on our team,” Diggins said. “When she’s in the game we’re playing well, and when she’s in foul trouble we’re a different team.”

Peters leads the team in rebounds (7.2 per game) and blocks (1.75 per game), and averages 11.6 points in 23.5 minutes per game — less than each of the other four starters and freshman Natalie Achonwa.

“”[Dev is] invaluable to the team,” senior forward Becca Bruszewski said. “She’s saved us all at one point or another with a block.”

Diggins and Bruszewski agreed the most important task for Notre Dame in this game is to take the crowd out of the game, in order to turn Utah’s home into a neutral court.

“You can’t get to the Final Four or even think about that unless you win game one,” Bruszewski said.

Notre Dame and Utah tip off half an hour after the game between Temple and Arizona State ends, a start time predicted to be around 6:30 p.m. EDT. The games will be broadcast on ESPN2.