Notre Dame women get a pleasant geographical surprise

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – There was plenty of celebrating and a surprise announcement when the Notre Dame women’s basketball team learned the route it would take when the NCAA tournament opens later this week.

Notre Dame (31-1, ranked No. 2) will meet North Carolina A&T at 6:35 p.m. Saturday at the Purcell Pavilion. The Aggies (19-11) are a 16 seed and won a share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship as well as the MEAC postseason crown. The school is located in Greensboro, N.C., where Notre Dame played last weekend to capture the Atlantic Coast Conference postseason championship.

The second game at Notre Dame Saturday night will pit No. 8 seed Georgia (21-9) against No. 9 seed Indiana (20-11). The winners will meet Monday for the right to advance to the regional and the sweet sixteen round of the tourney.

The Irish were named a No. 1 seed, as expected, along with Connecticut, South Carolina and Baylor, but Notre Dame was assigned to the Lexington, Ky., regional and will play at Rupp Arena if it wins the first two games on its home court. Originally, thoughts had Notre Dame going to the South Dakota Regional. But South Carolina was sent there instead of the Irish.

“It’s exciting to go to Lexington, but we have to focus on the first two games and do our job on those,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “We have to be all business and I am sure the seniors will take care of that. Being a No. 1 seed takes a lot of work. This team makes it look easy, but they put in a lot of work all season. So does the staff.”

Now the Irish and associate head coach Carol Owens will get down to work in detail.

“Coach McGraw always has me take the first game,” said Owens. "Beth (Cunningham) and Niele (Ivey) will take the other two teams as we prepare for this weekend."

Studying film and learning tendencies will be a lot of what McGraw, Owens and the rest of the staff will be doing now that their first-game opponent has been named.

“I appreciate how coach McGraw thinks,” Owens said. “She is awesome to work for. I have been here 16 years. We do it all together – recruiting, everything. We have an overall brand. Once you establish that brand it makes things easier – especially in recruiting. It’s hard to keep that brand and takes a lot of work.''

Should the Irish advance to Lexington, the top seeds there include No. 2 Maryland, No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4 Stanford. All, of course, have to win their first two games to advance to that regional.

The Notre Dame players seemed to take the announced pairings in stride, but were collectively anxious and excited for the tourney to begin.

“We will have a tough road to the national championship. We just have to take it game by game,” said senior Michaela Mabrey, who has participated in a Final Four each of her first three years with the Irish. “I am not really nervous. We have played in plenty of big venues over the last few years. We just now have to focus on North Carolina A&T. We have to focus on what they do – how they play.”

Sophomore Kathryn Westbeld agreed, her own confidence high after the start she gave the Irish in the ACC championship game last Sunday. She hit four straight mid-range jump shots in the first quarter to get the Irish rolling against Syracuse in that title game.

“It’s all mental. When I am open I have to let if fly,” she said. “It is exciting to think about our first tourney game. We just need to execute.”

McGraw has been able to lean on the team aspect of the Irish this year and depth is valuable in the tournament.

“There is no pressure on any one individual,'' she said. "We have fresh people ready on the bench. Seven different people could lead us in scoring and I think they are all having fun.''

The Irish have had enough fun to reach five consecutive Final Fours.

This year’s Final Four will be played in Indianapolis.

Notre Dame women's basketball players Hannah Huffman, left, Michaela Mabrey, center, and Kathryn Westbeld react as their placement as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is announced during the ESPN selection show on Monday. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

First round

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (31-1) vs. No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T

WHERE: Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion 

WHEN: Saturday, 6:35 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9)

NOTES: Second game at Purcell Saturday night features No. 8 seed Georgia (21-9) vs. No. 9 seed Indiana (20-11).