Numbers tell story of Notre Dame's hoops journey

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Numbers can portray a telling — even compelling story.

And looking at the numbers, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team should be considered a heavy favorite to win this weekend’s NCAA regional at Lexington, Ky.

Consider:

• The Irish are the No. 1 seed in the field, boasting a 33-1 record and a 26-game winning streak.

• Notre Dame has won five straight NCAA regionals and, along with Connecticut, are the only two schools in the country to make the elite eight five straight times.

• The Irish are 10-1 against ranked opponents, with No. 13/16 Stanford their next opponent — Friday night at Rupp Arena.

• The Irish defeated Stanford in regional play a year ago in Oklahoma City, 81-60.

Nonetheless, basketball is a game of emotion, momentum and upsets. Stanford, a No. 4 seed, No. 7 seed Washington, and host school Kentucky, No. 3 seed, all feel they have as much right to the road to Indianapolis as does Notre Dame, looking for its sixth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Notre Dame must match the hype and billing it receives with its play on the court.

Notre Dame and Stanford, led by legendary coach Tara VanDerveer (who has coached Stanford to two national championships), will play the second game Friday night, tipping off about 9:30. It will follow the 7 p.m, meeting between Kentucky and Washington, a team that upset Maryland on the Terps' home floor to advance to the regional.

Friday’s winners play at 1 p.m. Sunday for a berth in the Final Four.

“Stanford is always in the NCAA tourney,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. "They have an amazing coach with almost 1,000 wins (979 to be precise). She is a phenomenal coach, and the game will be a tough matchup. Erica McCall will be a tough matchup for us,” she added.

McCall averages 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds for the Cardinal.

The Cardinal insist they aren't talking much about avenging last season's loss.

"We really don't think about revenge," McCall said. "We're thinking it's a completely different game with two different teams, two different game plans."

If the game is close, here are more numbers to make Irish faithful breathe easier. Notre Dame has won its last 27 games decided by single digits and/or in overtime — including eight times this season.

Notre Dame practiced at Rupp Arena on Thursday. It is the first time the Irish have played in that massive facility and the players wanted to familiarize themselves with the background and sight lines.

But it’s those Notre Dame players' seemingly endless supply of weapons, that have led the way to a 30-win season for the sixth straight year. Opposing coaches make a huge and understandable case that the Irish are hard to defend.

Consider again: Two games ago, point guard Lindsay Allen did not take a shot in the first half. One game later, against Indiana, she scored 18 points in the first 20 minutes. Stanford clearly will remember Allen from a year ago. As a sophomore, she scored 28 in the regional victory over the Cardinal.

Yes, Allen can explode. But so can so many others. Sophomore player of the year candidate Brianna Turner averages 14.5 points. Madison Cable follows at 13.8 and the fearless freshmen, Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey are close behind at 11.5 and 10.8. The Irish average just a shade under 80 points a game (79.9), while Stanford scores at a more modest 67.9.

“We are not necessarily nervous,” said the do-everything Cable. “Once we settle in and get going we will be OK. We are excited for Friday night. We are going to come out with everything we have.”

McGraw echoes Cable’s confidence.

“There may have been more pressure playing at home (in the first two rounds of the NCAA),” said McGraw. “They want to play so well for the fans (and Notre Dame averaged more than 8,500 fans for their home games). We want them to just relax and take care of business.”

“At this point we are a confident team,” said McGraw. “We (the coaches) want to be supportive and positive now. We want the players to just keep doing what we have done to get here.”

McGraw, her staff and players all know the ultimate goal.

“We have had a great season," she said. "We just had to get to the Sweet 16. Now we got those first two rounds. We want the players to relax. They play much better when they are relaxed. But we know we are two games away from the Final Four – and that is something this team wants really badly.”

Stanford and either Washington or Kentucky will want to have much to say about that starting Friday.

The Irish are one of three Atlantic Coast Conference teams still alive in the Sweet 16. Florida State and Syracuse are the other two. The Pac-12 has four teams alive in Washington, Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA. The Irish defeated Oregon State and UCLA in regular season play.

Friday night, the teams and how they play will determine if the numbers add up.

Sanford coach VanDerveer noted that her team feels as if it's playing with "house money" after needing Lili Thompson's 3-point play with 8.2 seconds left to escape with a 66-65 second-round victory over South Dakota State.

"Some (of us) call ourselves the 'party crashers,' the team that's just going to come in there and crash the party and is going to get the upset," McCall said. "It's a lot of fun sometimes being the underdog because you don't have as much pressure on you."

The Associated Press contributed to this story

Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen (15) goes up for a shot as Indiana’s Jenn Anderson (43) defends during the first half of a second-round women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 21, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: No. 2/3 Notre Dame (33-1) vs. No.13/16 Stanford (26-7).

WHEN: Friday at 9 p.m. (EST)

WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

TICKETS: Available

TELEVISION: ESPN

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

GAME NOTES: Stanford finished the regular season third in the Pac-12 with a 14-4 conference record ... The Cardinal defeated Washington in the regular season, but lost to the Huskies in the Pac-12 postseason tourney ...Tara VanDerveer has coached since 1985. She is a 1975 graduate of Indiana University ... The Cardinal has won 11 of its last 13 games ... Lili Thompson, a 5-7 junior, leads with a 14.6 scoring mark ... Erica McCall is next at 14.5 ... Notre Dame has played in 21 straight NCAA tourneys and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen 14 of the last 20 years ... This will be the fourth meeting between the two schools. Stanford won the first two matchups with the Irish winning in last year’s Oklahoma City Regional.