Notre Dame women ramp up intensity for NCAA opener

Ken Klimek Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — There was not a lot of need for rhetoric.

Both Notre Dame and North Carolina A&T know what is at stake when they meet in the first round of the NCAA tournament for women’s college basketball at Purcell Pavilion Saturday evening.

Both teams are in vastly different places — the Irish a No. 1 seed and the Aggies a No. 16 seed. Notre Dame has won 24 straight and is 31-1 entering the game. A&T started 0-4 but has been on a roll, winning 10 of its last 11 games to enter Saturday’s matchup with a 19-11 record. Notre Dame is in its 23rd NCAA tournament with an overall record of 51-21 in tourney play. Conversely, the Aggies are appearing in the NCAA for only the third time. They are winless in two previous tourneys.

The winner of the Irish-Aggie matchup will meet the winner of the Georgia-Indiana game that will be the second game at Notre Dame on Saturday. The winners will play Monday at a time to be determined.

Even entering the tournament for the 21st consecutive season, and as an overwhelming favorite, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw feels the aura the tourney carries with it.

“I have a lot of anxiety,'' she said. "I think that never changes this time of the year.

"It’s really interesting when we get that first practice after the bracket is announced, and the intensity really rises. I think that’s a great compliment to our seniors. They really get incredibly focused. Practice has been really intense the last few days. I’m really excited about where this team is with their goals, their focus and their intensity. They are ready.”

North Carolina A&T coach Tarrell Robinson needed an early-season transformation before his Aggies began rolling and ultimately shared the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference crown and won the MEAC postseason tourney.

After the early season losses, Robinson said, “I took ownership of a lot of our issues. So I took the accountability on myself and told them we needed to have fun … Next thing we know we won five games in a row. They are starting to believe in themselves and in what we are trying to do. That’s when the magic starts.”

The Aggies know battling a No. 1 seed and the No. 2 ranked team in the country will be a monster challenge. The Irish are Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and postseason tourney champs. But how do the Aggies handle it?

“We’re just looking at it as a game that’s in front of us. Just stay focused and determined anyway possible,” said Aggie starting center April McRae.

Irish senior Michaela Mabrey sees the game similarly.

“We just need to come out focused,'' she said. "We’ve obviously had some tough games before, but we don’t take anyone lightly. We are trying to get better. We are not trying to dig down to their level, but we’re trying to up our level of play. We just have to keep focused.”

The Irish are expected to be at full strength. Freshman guard Arike Ogunbowale had not practiced most of the week, dealing with a 104 degree temperature, but she was back at practice Friday.

• Notre Dame's Brianna Turner picked up another major national honor as she earned a spot on the five-player Sports Illustrated All-America Team that was unveiled in this week’s issue of the national magazine.

Turner, who is a prime candidate for every major national player-of-the-year award, was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year by the league’s 15 head coaches on March 7, in addition to collecting All-ACC first team and ACC All-Defensive Team accolades for the second consecutive season.

Notre Dame’s Michaela Mabrey (23) shoots during first round practice for the NCAA women's basketball tournament on Friday, March 18, 2016, inside the Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame 31-1 vs. North Carolina A&T 19-11.

WHEN: Saturday at 6:30 pm (EST)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPN2.

INTERNET: ESPN3, WatchND

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) South Bend, WatchND (audio only)

GAME NOTES: North Carolina A&T coach Tarrell Robinson worked for current Notre Dame assistant coach Beth Cunningham for three seasons. He was an assistant when Cunningham was the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth ... April McRae is the Aggies leading scorer and rebounder at 13.3 and 6.4 per game, respectively. Guard Dana Brown is next at 11.5 points per game. The Irish feature four players in double figures, led by sophomore Brianna Turner and her 14.3 mark. Grad student Madison Cable is next at 13.7 followed by freshmen Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey at 11.7 and 10.6.