Notre Dame women begin title quest in Iowa City

Notre Dame came into the season with a few goals. Now with two

of the main ones accomplished, the Irish can turn their attention

to the NCAA tournament.

Top-seeded Notre Dame (31-1) starts its quest to return to the

Final Four on Sunday against Ohio Valley Conference champion

Tennessee Martin (19-14) in the first-round of the NCAAs at Iowa’s

Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In the other first-round game, eighth-seeded

Miami (21-10) takes on host Iowa (20-12), one of 13 schools in the

nation to play in its sixth straight NCAA tournament.

The Irish, who are riding a school record 26-game winning

streak, have made the NCAA title game the past two seasons falling

both times. Now the Irish hope to get back there again and get the

school’s second national championship.

McGraw said her team’s resiliency and chronic state of

dissatisfaction has fueled their success. The Fighting Irish never

stop searching for ways to improve.

”They come in after a win and we’re going to watch what we did

wrong,” McGraw said. ”We don’t really look at what we’re doing

well so much as how we can get better, and this team relishes that.

They love to be challenged. They want to get better.”

Notre Dame swept the Big East Conference regular season and

tournament titles, becoming the first school other than Connecticut

to accomplish the feat since 1993.

The Fighting Irish’s lone loss this season came at home to

top-ranked Baylor back on Dec. 5. Notre Dame hasn’t lost since

despite being tested with three wins against UConn, two against

Louisville and others against Tennessee and Purdue.

”We understand what it takes to get there,” senior Skylar

Diggins said. ”The conference schedule that we play is so tough.

I’ve said this before – you’re playing elite level Final Four,

Sweet 16 games all the time. I think ultimately that’s what really

prepared us for the tournament.”

Notre Dame averages 80.8 points per game and boasts a balanced

offense. Ten of the 11 players on the roster have scored in double

figures at least once, including five with 20-point games.

The three-time All-American Diggins leads the Fighting Irish

with 17 points and almost six assists per game. The senior guard is

52 points shy of the school’s career scoring mark.

Notre Dame shouldn’t intimidate Tennessee Martin.

The Skyhawks played Baylor, Stanford, Louisville and Purdue

during their nonconference schedule.

Tennessee Martin is the only team in the nation with two top-10

scorers. Jasmine Newsome (22.9 points per game) and Health Butler

(22) account for more than 60 percent of the scoring by the

Skyhawks.

The guards weren’t heavily recruited, perhaps because of their

size.

”They look more like cheerleaders than basketball players,”

Tennessee Martin coach Kevin McMillan said.

The 5-foot-5 Butler played for McMillan in high school. The 5-6

Newsome’s dad reached out to McMillan after paying close attention

to his career path from nearby Millington, Tenn.

Iowa and Miami have a lot of similarities. Both teams have

registered big wins and weathered tough stretches, and they both

have the flexibility to score inside and outside.

The Hawkeyes once had more wins against ranked opponents than

any other team in the country. Iowa lost six of seven games later

in the season before pulling a few wins out at the end to secure

the NCAA bid.

The Hurricanes knocked off top 10 teams Penn State and Duke.

Miami also dropped five games in January.

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder was savoring the opportunity to play at

home, where the Hawkeyes ranked in the top 20 in attendance this

season. She planned to have the team over to her house for lasagna

and chicken.

”This afternoon was kind of weird,” Bluder said. ”I’m at home

cleaning my kitchen. Not sure if that’s what most coaches are doing

during NCAA tournament time.”

Miami coach Katie Meier once dreamed of playing for the Hawkeyes

as a high school guard in Wheaton, Ill., after two of her sisters

and a brother attended school at Iowa.

Meier ended up at Duke after then-Iowa coach Vivian Stringer

didn’t offer a scholarship. Meier admitted she probably wasn’t good

enough.

”I’m not bitter,” Meier joked. ”I still have the letter – no,

just kidding, I don’t.”