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Notre Dame’s path to Final Four again goes through Lexington, Stanford

| Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The 2016 NCAA tournament did not go as expected for Notre Dame, after it was upset in the Sweet 16. There are no do-overs in sports, but the Irish may have just gotten the next best thing in 2017.

Despite an uncharacteristic blip early in conference play that briefly left Irish hopes of a top seed in doubt, Notre Dame’s path for the 2017 tournament looks eerily similar to that of last year.

The seed is the same as last year. The undefeated and seemingly-unbeatable team waiting ominously on the opposite side of the bracket is the same. But the Irish did not make it to the Final Four last year, losing to Stanford in Lexington, Kentucky, instead. This year, the Irish are again top seeds in the Lexington regional. The No. 2 seed and likely Elite Eight opponent? The Cardinal.

Irish head coach Muffet McGraw, however, said she was not overly concerned about the potential rematch that highlighted the Lexington regional.

“We’ve been in their bracket quite a few times,” McGraw said. “We’ve played them quite a few times in the Sweet 16 and to go to the Final Four. But it’s all good teams at the top and you have to play somebody.”

Irish sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale takes a shot in Notre Dame’s 79-61 victory over Florida State on Feb. 26 at Purcell Pavilion. Kathleen Donahue | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale takes a shot in Notre Dame’s 79-61 victory over Florida State on Feb. 26 at Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame is a No. 1 seed for the sixth consecutive year, ensuring an opening-round matchup with No. 16 seed and Northeast Conference champion Robert Morris. The Colonials (22-10, 14-4 Northeast) made the tournament last year, where they were defeated 101-49 by Connecticut. This year, a victory over Bryant in the conference championship game ensured Robert Morris a place at the tournament. With the Irish unsure of their opponents until Monday’s selection show, McGraw said she hoped to know more about the Colonials by Friday’s matchup, but was confident that the dominant third-quarter run that guided her team to a victory over Duke in the ACC tournament was a sign that her team was in the right kind of form to begin NCAA tournament play.

“I thought that stretch in the Duke game was just about the best we’ve played, ever,” McGraw said. “When you look at how we played against Louisville and we had our freshman step in, play extremely well, the starters all played well. The whole tournament, we had four people on the all-tournament team and probably could have had one more when you look at what [junior forward Kathryn Westbeld] did for us. So I’m really pleased with where we are. I think we’re peaking at the right time.”

Despite the fact that the Irish will be heavily-favored to make it to the second round, McGraw remained cautious about her team’s chances and said she would not take any game for granted.

“We’re trying to concentrate on trying to get to two games,” McGraw said. “We’re trying to win the first one and get to the second game.”

If the team does make it to a second game, the situation for Notre Dame is again reminiscent of last year. In-state rival and No. 9 seed Purdue is a potential matchup for the Irish, who defeated in-state rival and No. 9 seed Indiana last year. For that matchup — a rematch of the 2001 national title game — to occur, however, the Boilermakers would have to defeat No. 8 seed Green Bay, who the Irish struggled to put out completely of reach in a 71-67 victory earlier in the season.

It is in Lexington — the destination for the Irish if they can secure two wins at home  — where the Irish will hope to change the story from 2016, but there are already a few minor differences. Last year, the Irish knew that beating Stanford would see them face the winners of a clash between home team Kentucky and a Washington team led by high-scoring senior guard Kelsey Plum. This year, Notre Dame will not play Stanford in the Sweet 16, but instead is likely to see the winners of home team Kentucky’s meeting with an Ohio State team led by high-scoring junior guard Kelsey Mitchell. McGraw said she knows both teams are extremely talented and either could pose a challenge if the Irish make it to Lexington.

“I think Ohio State-Kentucky could be a really good 4-5 game,” McGraw said. “Kentucky definitely has an advantage. They had a great crowd down there last year and it would be great if we were able to get back there.”

If the Irish make it past the Buckeyes or the Wildcats and into the Elite Eight, Stanford may await, but No. 3 seed Texas and No. 6 seed North Carolina State are among the other teams who may hope to spoil Notre Dame’s chances of advancing to the Final Four.

If the Irish can avenge their 2016 defeat and make it back to the Final Four for the eighth time in program history  — all under McGraw  — the opponents may look familiar too. South Carolina, who the Irish met in the 2015 Final Four, are the top seed in the Stockton regional, while in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the four-time defending champion UConn is again the tournament favorite.

To get that far, however, the Irish need to win five games. The first, against Robert Morris, begins Friday at 7:30 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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