No easy road to Tampa for Notre Dame's women's basketball

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Denied another visit to Tobacco Road, Notre Dame’s second-ranked women’s basketball team will need to get its kicks along old Route 66 if the Irish hope to make it to a fifth straight Women’s Final Four in Tampa early next month.

After sweeping three games two weekends ago in Greensboro, N.C., to win their second straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship, coach Muffet McGraw’s 31-2 Irish, winners of 17 straight, appeared to be a pretty good choice to return to the Greensboro Coliseum, one of the four regional sites.

Instead, the selection committee, for attendance reasons, placed Southeastern Conference champion South Carolina there and placed the Irish in the regional at Oklahoma City, one of the many cities along the 2,448-mile old highway that connected Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.

Disappointed? If she was, McGraw didn't let on.

“I think the women’s tournament is really at a point where we have to attract a lot of fans, and I think South Carolina going to Greensboro just makes a lot of sense,” McGraw said. “That’s what our game needs.”

All Notre Dame has to do to get to get to Chesapeake Energy Arena, the site of the Oklahoma City Regional semifinal and final games March 27 and 29, is win a pair of games Friday and Sunday in the friendly confines of Purcell Pavilion. One of 16 schools playing host to three other teams in first- and second-round action – also an attempt to draw more fans – the Irish open their tournament road Friday night at 7:30 against Big Sky champion Montana (24-8).

That game follows one tipping off at 5 p.m. between No. 8 seed Minnesota (23-9) of the Big Ten and No. 9 seed DePaul (26-7), the Big East champion and an early-season Irish opponent in December. Following a 76-58 loss to Connecticut on Dec. 6, Notre Dame, playing without freshman forward Brianna Turner, went overtime in Chicago before beating the Blue Demons, 94-93, thanks to Jewell Loyd’s career-high 41 points.

“It’s exciting to play at home,” McGraw said. “I think, like every coach in the country, after it's all over, we’re going to say we have the toughest bracket. We’re playing a 16th seed (Montana) with a great record, 21 times in the NCAA tournament, probably the best 16th-seeded team that’s ever been in the tournament. Minnesota has an All-American (Amanda Zahui B.) and DePaul has another great team. I think whoever advances is going to be tough in the tournament.”

And if that teams is Notre Dame, the road only gets tougher when it reaches Oklahoma City. If the Irish take care of business in South Bend, they could potentially match up against No. 4 Stanford, the only team to beat No. 1 Connecticut this season back in November, or No. 5 Oklahoma. One of those two teams will be a potential regional semifinal foe, provided they take care of Cal State Northridge and Quinnipiac, respectively, in their opening-round games in the Stanford pod Saturday and Monday.

The bottom half of the Oklahoma City Regional bracket features No. 2 seed Baylor (which opens at home against Northwestern State Friday), No. 3 seed Iowa (which opens at home Friday against American), No. 6 Washington (which plays Miami in the opening game at Iowa City) and No. 7 Northwestern (which plays Arkansas in the opening game at Waco, Texas).

The regional championship March 29 in Oklahoma City potentially could be a rematch of last year’s South Bend Regional championship game between Baylor and Notre Dame. The Irish won the game, 88-69, but lost All-America forward Natalie Achonwa to a knee injury for the Women’s Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., and their eventual 79-58 championship-game loss to UConn in the only battle ever between unbeaten teams.

Right now, however, the Irish are looking forward to getting back into the gym to begin preparations for their first-round game with the Grizzlies.

“We’re going to take it one game at a time and not overlook anyone or take anyone for granted,” said junior All-American Jewell Loyd, who leads the Irish with a 20.5 scoring average. “We’re just glad to have the opportunity to have a chance.”

If the Irish survive the Oklahoma City Regional, they would play the Greensboro Regional winner in the Easter Sunday, April 5 semifinals (the other semifinal pits regional winners out of Albany, N.Y., and Spokane Wash.). The national title game is Tuesday, April 7 at the Amalie Arena on Tampa Bay’s waterfront. UConn (32-1), No. 1 in the country since a February thrashing of South Carolina in Storrs, Conn., begins its tournament play Saturday evening at home against Northeast Conference champion St. Francis, N.Y. (15-18). The Huskies possible trip to Tampa goes through Albany, N.Y., March 28 and 30. South Carolina (30-2), the SEC champion, opens at home Friday afternoon against MEAC champion Savannah State (21-10) in its bid to get to Greensboro for the March 27 semifinals and 29 championship.

The other No. 1 seed went to Big Ten champion Maryland (30-2), which has won 24 straight since suffering a 92-72 loss to Notre Dame in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game Dec. 3 in Fort Wayne. Maryland opens at home with WAC champion New Mexico State (22-7) Saturday in the Spokane, Wash., Regional, where the semifinals and final are set for March 28 and 30.

Notre Dame's Taya Reimer, right, points to teammate Brianna Turner during the selection show Monday, March 16, 2015, in South Bend. The number one seeded Fighting Irish, will be playing in the Oklahoma City bracket, will host 16th seeded Montana in South Bend Friday at 7:30 pm. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)