March 12, 2012
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) - Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw sees some encouraging similarities between her current Irish team and the one that won the national championship in 2001.
The Irish are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, just as they were 11 years ago. They're coming off a loss to UConn in the BIG EAST finals, just like 2001. And they get to start the tourney on their home floor, another parallel.
"In 2001 we lost in the BIG EAST final and it was only our second loss, and it kind of motivated us to get to the national championship game," McGraw said Monday. "We are coming into the same situation this year. ... We would love to repeat what we did the last time we got a No. 1 seed in 2001. We have some good karma there and we were able to win the national championship."
Notre Dame (30-3), the runner-up a year ago, will meet Big South champion Liberty (24-8) on Sunday at the Purcell Pavilion in the Raleigh region. Win that game, and it will play No. 8-seeded California or ninth-seeded Iowa.
"I'm just glad to be playing at home," said McGraw, who is taking the Irish to the NCAAs for a 17th straight year and 19th overall.
As a No. 2 seed last season, Notre Dame knocked off Tennessee in the regional finals and UConn in the semifinals before losing to Texas A&M 76-70 in the national championship game. A&M is also in the Raleigh region.
"We do have some unfinished business but we can't afford to look ahead. It will be some good motivation to keep improving to get to that game. We have to look at the 16 seed and that has to be our focus," McGraw said.
But don't think the loss in the title game last season hasn't motivated the Irish. When you beat the two marquee powers in women's basketball back to back then don't finish off the tournament, the disappointment lingers for a while.
"Getting the top seed is like opening up a Christmas present and getting the gift you wanted. We got the gift we wanted. It reflects on the season that we had, our 30-win accomplishment in the regular season and all of us have been waiting for this moment since we lost in the championship," said star guard Skylar Diggins.
"Obviously getting back to the championship game has been in the back of our minds. But we are starting over. We are only guaranteed one game. If you don't win, you don't go on."
Notre Dame's three losses this season came to overall No. 1 seed Baylor on the road, to West Virginia at home and then to UConn in the BIG EAST tourney final, a week after the Irish defeated the Huskies for the second time this season to capture the regular-season championship outright.
Between the losses to Baylor and West Virginia, they reeled off 21 straight victories.
Playing on their home floor should be a huge advantage. The Irish were 15-1 at the Purcell Pavilion, the only blemish a surprising two-point loss to the Mountaineers. At home this season, Notre Dame also beat UConn in overtime and routed Tennessee by 28.
Now the regular season is behind the Irish, and all that matters is what's ahead, starting Sunday on their home floor.
"I think from Day 1 of the season we wanted to fast forward to this moment. You could tell in our first game that we wanted to come out and win it all. At first we thought that we had to be perfect but as the season went on, we settled in and got it rolling. We calmed down," Diggins said.
"I think we put a lot more expectation on ourselves than others put on us. ... Some people get all caught up in the numbers part of it. But it's a game. It is what we have worked hard for, to get to this point. To enjoy the college experience. We have had a great time this year with our success and handling our failures."