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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame earns No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament

| Monday, March 12, 2018

Notre Dame has seen the number one accompany its name at seven previous NCAA tournaments, including each of the last six seasons.

But this time felt different for Irish head coach Muffet McGraw.

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish junior guard Marina Mabrey protects the ball during Notre Dame’s 121-65 win over Mount St. Mary’s on Nov. 11 at Purcell Pavilion.

“I don’t think that after the big loss we had earlier in the season we could have seen this coming,” McGraw said. “You come off a game where you played Connecticut, you think you played OK and then you start losing more people. I don’t think that I was thinking No. 1 seed.”

After losing four players to season-ending ACL injuries, the Irish played much of the 2017-18 season with only seven scholarship players. After blowing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to Connecticut (32-0, 16-0 AAC) and losing 100-69 to Louisville, Notre Dame’s chances of a top seed looked slim. Down by 23 points to Tennessee, they looked even slimmer.

“I was thinking at halftime of the Tennessee game if we would make the tournament, or at least if we’d be playing at home,” McGraw said.

Yet, while the Irish may have only shared the ACC regular-season title with Louisville (32-2, 15-1 ACC) and lost to the Cardinals in the conference tournament, they enter the NCAA tournament as a top seed yet again, this time in the Spokane, Washington, region.

The Irish will begin the tournament by hosting No. 16-seed Cal State Northridge in the opening round Friday. The Matadors (19-15, 8-8 Big West) upset regular-season champions UC Davis to win the Big West conference and claim a fourth NCAA tournament berth in the program’s history, but they have yet to earn a tournament victory. McGraw said her team would start preparing for the Matadors right away.

“The assistants will be scouting; they’re going to be watching as much film as they can get their hands on,” McGraw said. “We’re happy to have had some rest, but we have to get back into things again really quickly.”

If the Irish advance, they will face either South Dakota State or Villanova. While the Jackrabbits (26-6, 12-2 Summit) — who had three postseason wins of 15 points or more to earn a Summit League championship — are the higher seed, the former Big East foe Wildcats (22-8, 12-6 Big East) may be the more intriguing potential opponent.

“Coming to Notre Dame, there’s an old friend from the Big East days; that’s not a team I’m excited to meet,” McGraw said. “So really, I don’t think we can think too much ahead.”

Though McGraw may not be looking at the later rounds yet, if the Irish do win their two games at home, they will travel West, where No. 4-seed Texas A&M and No. 5-seed DePaul are among the possible Sweet 16 opponents in Spokane. In a strong SEC, the Aggies (24-9, 11-5 SEC) found themselves tied for fourth with three other teams, while the Big East champion Blue Demons (26-7, 15-3 Big East) are known for their high pace-of-play, ranking sixth in the nation in points per game while averaging almost 90 offensive possessions per game. However, Irish junior forward Jessica Shepard, who has never played at the NCAA tournament in her two previous seasons at Nebraska, said there would be plenty of time for looking at the Sweet 16 if the Irish can make it past the opening rounds.

“Like coach has said, we’ve got to win the first one first,” Shepard said. “I’m not taking anything for granted, not thinking anywhere beyond that first game. We’re just really focused on the first game and taking care of business.”

If the Irish wish to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015, they will likely need to overcome one of the top players and offenses in the nation. No. 3-seed Ohio State is led by senior guard Kelsey Mitchell, who has been a constant near the top of NCAA scoring lists in her four years in Columbus and looks to climb further up the career points leaderboard while helping the Buckeyes (26-6, 13-3 Big Ten), who will hope to return home for the Final Four, to the NCAA’s fifth highest-scoring offense. Second-seeded Oregon, playing much closer to home than any of the other top-four seeds, is led by the pick-and-roll duo of sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu, who already holds the career mark for triple-doubles, and sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard, whose 32 consecutive shots made late in the regular season was an NCAA record and helped her to the second-highest field goal percentage in the nation this season.

For the Final Four, the Irish find themselves on the same side of the bracket as rival Connecticut for the first time since 2013, when the Huskies defeated the Irish after the Irish had posted a 3-0 record over the Huskies in Big East play.

But a potential Final Four meeting with the perennial top dogs of the sport still remains four games away for Muffet McGraw’s adversity-plagued team. The first of those games will be Friday starting at 5 p.m., when Notre Dame hosts CSU Northridge at Purcell Pavilion.

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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.

Contact Daniel