Hartnett: The time is now for the Irish (March 22)
Brian Hartnett | Friday, March 22, 2013
Notre Dame entered this season with the unique challenge of replacing 32.8 points per game and 16.1 rebounds per game from last season’s national runner-up.
More importantly, the Irish had to figure out how to incorporate several little-used or new players into a new-look lineup.
Yet Notre Dame got even better.
The Irish capped off their swan song in the Big East by winning both the conference’s regular season and, for the first time, its tournament title. Notre Dame took down fellow No. 1 seed Connecticut three times and had 11 wins over ranked teams.
The only stumble along the way came at the hands of current No. 1 overall seed Baylor, a team that has only lost one game over the last two seasons.
Any way you slice it, it’s statistically been the greatest regular season in Notre Dame history. The Irish currently sit at 31-1, the most wins they have ever had entering the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame has achieved this remarkable mark through vastly improved play from frontcourt duo Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker and the stellar freshman campaign of Jewell Loyd.
There’s also the consistently strong play of veteran guard Kayla McBride and substantial contributions from bench players like Markisha Wright and Kaila Turner.
And then there’s hometown hero Skylar Diggins. Diggins’ statistics speak for themselves, but her leadership on a young squad cannot be quantified. Take a look at Notre Dame’s most important possessions this season – Diggins is somehow involved in nearly every one, whether she is scoring, assisting or making a defensive stop.
Now the Irish enter the NCAA tournament and expectations are sky-high. Many pundits have the team penciled in for a third consecutive national championship game, a testament to the program’s development under coach Muffet McGraw.
These high expectations are well-deserved. Notre Dame has proven it’s an elite program and should be mentioned with perennial top schools like Connecticut, Baylor, Stanford and Tennessee.
Such expectations are also necessary because, well, this third time needs to be the charm for the Irish.
Notre Dame has done exceptionally well in the last two NCAA tournaments, defeating Connecticut in the Final Four both times. But the Irish have never gotten over the hump to be national champions, dropping a close game to Texas A&M two years ago and falling to Baylor last season.
These recent failures help underscore the importance of this season’s tournament – the Irish don’t want to be viewed as women’s basketball’s version of the Buffalo Bills.
So this tournament holds extra importance because it will likely be Notre Dame’s best shot at a title in the near future.
I don’t mean to dismiss the team’s future prospects. Achonwa, Loyd and McBride give the Irish a great core for next year, and McGraw has some exceptional recruits coming in.
But there are very few teams equipped to win the tournament in women’s basketball; unlike on the men’s side, the No. 1 seeds are by far the country’s best teams.
It was Diggins who raised the Irish into the strata of the elite. Before her last-minute commitment, Sweet 16 runs were the high water mark for Notre Dame. Her inspiring leadership and all-around ability has helped vault the Irish past Connecticut and other teams traditionally ahead of them. Without her, who knows how the Irish will fare in crunch time?
And it will be up to Diggins to help elevate Notre Dame to new heights – most likely, a victory over Baylor, who has been Notre Dame’s foil the last two years. Unless the Irish can find a 6-foot-8 player off the street, they’ll once again have trouble matching up with the Bears’ dunking center, Brittney Griner.
But a victory over the Bears wouldn’t be the first time Diggins and the Irish have proven the critics wrong, and that’s a story they would like to help write again.
Contact Brian Hartnett at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.