Lindsay Allen gets the point for Notre Dame women's basketball

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – A season ago at this time, Lindsay Allen didn’t know what to expect heading into her first NCAA women’s basketball tournament game as the point guard of Notre Dame.

But the 5-foot-7 Allen, who replaced four-time All-American Skylar Diggins at the position, knew what to do. She leaned on, listened to and learned from her older “sisters” — Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd — while helping the Irish to a fourth straight Women’s Final Four and third national championship game appearance.

Now Allen and Loyd, along with returnees Taya Reimer, Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable among others, will be the experienced blankets Notre Dame’s talented freshmen Brianna Turner, Kathryn Westbeld and Mychal Johnson will want to hold as Muffet McGraw’s second-ranked Irish (31-2), the No. 1 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, begin a quest for a fifth straight Final Four, Friday night at 7:30 against Big Sky champion and 16th-seed Montana (24-8) in a first-round game at the Purcell Pavilion.

“I’ve tried to tell them they need to treat this like it’s just another game, even though it’s in the tournament,” said Allen, of the younger Irish players. “That’s what I learned from our seniors last year. They told us to take it one game at a time and to focus on what you needed to do and not do anything extra.

“I think you have to play smarter. You have to be smarter with the ball. It’s important to have a good assist-to-turnover ratio, because that means you are protecting the basketball. It’s important that they (the freshmen) see that I am calm and positive, because they will be calm and positive, too.”

Notre Dame has been idle since winning its 17th straight game, a 71-58 victory in the ACC tournament championship game against Florida State back on March 8.

Junior All-American Loyd, the espnW Player of the Year, leads the Irish with an ACC-leading 20.5-point scoring average and whose defense generally shut down the opposing team’s player. As much as Notre Dame depends on her all-around game as well as the scoring, rebounding and blocking efforts of Reimer and Turner, the key for Notre Dame to make another Women’s Final Four run depends on Allen.

“Last year, heading into it (the tournament) as a rookie and going to the national championship, Lindsay was so impressive with her poise, her attitude and her demeanor,” McGraw said. “She is such a veteran, even as sophomore now, and I think when you have a point guard in a good place, it settles the rest of the team down.”

McGraw and her staff asked more of Allen this season, and she responded. She got more aggressive going to the basket and shot 54.5 percent from the field (including 37.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line) and a team-leading 82.9 percent from the free-throw line, Allen averaged 9.9 points a game. However, her assist-to-turnover ratio jumped just a hair from 1.97 to 2.07.

McGraw and her Irish teammates wouldn’t mind a repeat of her 5.60 post-season effort of a year ago.

"I think assist-to-turnover is really key,” McGraw said. “We’ve had some games where we’ve been really careless with the ball. That’s a statistic I really look at.”

The Grizzlies, who won both the Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles under long-time head coach Robin Selvig, do a lot of the little things well. With three seniors in the starting lineup, Montana comes in on a roll, too, having won nine of its last 11. Montana is led by 5-foot-9 redshirt senior guard Kellie Rubel (14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game with a 1.53 assist-to-turnover ratio).

The Grizzlies defend (opponents are shooting just 34 percent, fourth best), rebound (they average 42.7 a game) and block shots (6.2 a game, ninth best nationally).

“They are a veteran team, that’s a big key,” McGraw said. “You really don’t want to play a team that’s poised and experienced. Their guards are really good and they’re kind of interchangeable, they all can score and they have a balanced team attack. They are very unselfish with the basketball and are very disciplined.”

In the history of both the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, only once has a No. 16 seed beaten a No. 1 seed. In 1998, the Harvard women's team knocked off an injury-plagued Stanford team coached by Tara VanDerveer, who was a finalist for the Montana job that Selvig eventually got.

Selvig, who played for coach Jud Heathcote (of Michigan State fame) at Montana, knows the odds are long about that happening.

“I really have not talked much about it,” he said Thursday. “I believe our approach is pretty simple. We are going to get out and go after it. I think our ladies expect that we are going to have a chance to be successful. They are not dumb. They believe that this would be an unbelievable upset. But what I am worried about is coming in and playing well. All we can do is play as well as we can.”

The Grizzlies aren’t shying away from the opportunity.

“We aren’t going to go into this game thinking we are beat before it’s started,” said 6-foot-3 senior Carly Selvig, the coach’s niece and a shot-blocking center. We’re going to go out and leave it all out there. We’re going to play our hardest.”

Another senior starter, Maggie Rickman, isn’t conceding anything either.

“Our potential is huge and our team has a ton of heart,” she said.

Lindsay Allen and Notre Dame feel the same way.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, left, shouts to Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

WHAT: First-round games of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament’s Oklahoma City Regional.

GAME 1: No. 8 seed Minnesota (23-9) vs. No. 9 seed DePaul (26-7), 5 p.m.

GAME 2: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (31-2) vs. No. 16 seed Montana (24-8), 7:30 p.m.

WHEN: Friday

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (8,887); South Bend

TICKETS: Some upper-arena tickets were available as of Thursday afternoon. Call (574) 631-7356 or check online (und.com) before going to the ticket office at Purcell Pavilion.

TV: ESPN2, ESPN3.com with WatchESPN app

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9), WHPD-FM (92.1), watchND.tv

LIVE STATS: UND.com

WORTH NOTING: Winners will advance to second-round game at Purcell Pavilion scheduled for 9 p.m., on Sunday. That winner advances to regional semifinal game at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City on Friday, March 27 against the winner of the pod being hosted by No. 4 seed Stanford (with seeds No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 12 Quinnipiac and No. 13 Cal State Northridge). … The Grizzlies went 14-4 to win the regular-season Big Sky title and then won three games to win the Big Sky tournament title, knocking off Idaho State (69-67), Eastern Washington (55-51) and finally Northern Colorado (60-49) in the championship game on their home court in Missoula. … Notre Dame went 15-1 to win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and then avenged its last loss (78-63 Jan. 8 at Miami) by beating the Hurricanes (77-61), then Duke (55-49) and Florida State (71-58) at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum March 6-8 to win the ACC tournament title. … Montana coach Robin Selvig, whose 37-year tenure as a head coach has been spent in Missoula, was named Big Sky Coach of the Year for the 20th time. He is only one of eight coaches with 800 victories. He’s currently 821-266 (.755) with 35 winning seasons, 30 seasons with 20 or more victories, 23 conference titles and 20 NCAA appearances. … Muffet McGraw is 694-220 (.759) in her 28th season at Notre Dame and 782-261 (.750) overall in 33 seasons, a three-time consensus national Coach of the Year honors, six-time conference Coach of the Year honors. She has taken Notre Dame to 22 NCAA tournaments, the last 20 in a row, with a 2001 national championship and six Women’s Final Four appearances. … This is the second meeting between the Irish and Grizzlies. Montana won the only previous meeting, 50-48, during the Seattle Times Classic on New Year’s Eve in 1986. Selvig was the coach at Montana; Notre Dame was coached by Mary DiStanislao.