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ND Women’s Basketball: Bonnies stand in way of Elite Eight

Molly Sammon | Friday, March 23, 2012

op-seeded Notre Dame knows the routine of Sweet 16 competition well, as this weekend’s regional semifinal in Raleigh, N.C. is its third appearance in three years this far in the tournament. But its next opponent, fifth-seeded St. Bonaventure, is a new challenge for the Irish.

“[The Sweet 16] is where we expect to be every year, and now from here on out anything can happen,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

Not only is this year the Bonnies’ first time to compete at the regional semifinal level, this is the first year they have qualified for the national tournament.

“I think they are a team that you look and you have not heard a lot about them, so it is easy to look past them and think that we are just going to concentrate on the next game,” McGraw said. “But this is a really good team. They’re number one in the nation in turnover margin, they do not turn the ball over and they shoot it really well. They have the No. 1 three-point shooter in the country.”

The Irish and Bonnies share an identical 31-1 record heading into their third round match-up. The Irish finished the season at No. 4 with losses to top-ranked Baylor and Big East opponents Connecticut and West Virginia. St. Bonaventure fell to Delaware, Villanova and Dayton twice, once in the regular season and in the Atlantic-10 conference tournament final.

“We beat three No. 2 seeds in the tournament, and we beat a No. 1 seed twice, so for us, I think we are playing the level of competition that we are used to,” McGraw said. “But for them, they are very similar to us in that they are a veteran team. They have juniors and seniors on the starting line-up, they have played together for three or four years, they really know each other well, they don’t turn the ball over, take care of the little things and pay attention to the details.”

The Irish will depend on the defensive aid of graduate student forward Devereaux Peters, who averaged 12.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game in 2012.

“They are very good 3-point shooting team, they’re very athletic, they move the ball really well and they do not cause a lot of turnovers, so it is going to be a good test for us really defensively,” Peters said.

Peters said that St. Bonaventure’s way of structuring an outside offensive strategy looks like what she is used to seeing inside the Big East.

“I’m just going to play outside a little bit more, and definitely on offense we’re going to look in because they’re more of a guard-oriented team,” Peters said. “We’re going to look in a little more. I just have to play guards, which helps a little bit because I am usually trying to usually play that in the Big East. Teams like Villanova that play a lot of side offense with a lot of guards. It shouldn’t be that big of a difference for us.”

The Irish played their first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at the Purcell Pavilion, and the trip to Raleigh starts what really feel like a tournament, McGraw said.

“It has a tournament feel when you’re traveling and you get to have the team to yourself, watch a lot more film and do a lot more things with them,” McGraw said.

At home, Notre Dame beat Liberty 74-43 in the first round. In its second game of the tournament, eighth-seeded California was tied with the Irish at halftime, but Notre Dame took off on a 10-2 run at the beginning of the second half for a 72-63 victory. Irish senior guard Natalie Novosel finished with 28 points against the Golden Bears.

“After the game, I really liked that we had a really tough game going into it, I was really worried about that, thinking they were under-seeded, and it was going to be a really good game,” McGraw said. “But now that we’ve had that experience, I think we really needed it.

St. Bonaventure rides the excitement of its first time at the Sweet 16 on the two nail-biting games that helped them reach this point. First, the Bonnies topped Florida Gulf Coast in overtime 72-65 followed by a 66-63 win over Marist after a failed attempt from the Red Foxes to tie the game before the buzzer.

The competition on the court is not the only matchup between Notre Dame and St. Bonaventure. Bonnies’ coach Jim Crawley and McGraw are both finalists for the Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year.

McGraw said junior guard Skylar Diggins wears many hats while on the court and is critical to Notre Dame’s success on both ends of the floor.

“[Skylar is] just doing whatever we need her to do. She had nine rebounds in the first game, scored 20 points in the second, so she’s really ready,” McGraw said. “She wants to score, she wants to help us win, and if that means she needs to score, she’ll do it. She’s comfortable getting the assist, getting good steal, playing good defense, she’ll do a little bit of everything.

“The big stage is the big place for her. She really plays well as the competition steps up.”

A win against the Bonnies would advance the Irish to face the winner of second-seeded Maryland and third-seeded Texas A&M in the elite eight, each an underdog to Notre Dame’s place atop the regional.

“This time we’re the No. 1 seed, and I think that puts a little different look on it,” McGraw said. “I think that there is maybe a little more pressure on us, but we’re trying really not to think about that. We’re trying really just to focus on St. Bonaventure. That’s the big game for us.”

The Irish will play the Bonnies in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. A win qualifies them for the Elite Eight portion of the national tournament, where they will play the winner of second-seeded Maryland and third-seeded Texas A&M on Tuesday at the same location.

Contact Molly Sammon at msammon@nd.edu