Notre Dame women hope to get off to a fast start against Robert Morris

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — When Notre Dame opens play in the first round of the NCAA tourney Friday at Purcell Pavilion, fans won’t see any baffling game plans or peculiar-looking strategy offensively or defensively.

But they will see a definite international flavor and possibly two former school classmates going against each other, when the No. 1 seed and No. 2-ranked Irish (30-3) face No. 16 seed Robert Morris (22-10) at 7:30 p.m. EDT (ESPN2)

That game will follow a 5 p.m. matchup between No. 8 seed Green Bay (27-5) and No. 9 seed Purdue (22-12).

Both Irish coach Muffet McGraw and Colonials coach Charlie Buscaglia stressed they have tried to make preparation for the NCAA tourney just like they do for every game throughout the season.

“We do that every single game,” said McGraw. “We approach every game the same way. This is what they do. This is what we need to do. We said that early in the season, and carried it through. And that is how we focus on Robert Morris now.”

The Colonials feature a starter from Greece, another from Spain and have three Canadian players on the roster. They also have 5-8 senior guard Janee Brown who went to the same elementary school as Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen back in Mitchellville, Md.

Brown has been out with a high ankle sprain, but her coach is hopeful she can play.

“If there is any chance she can go, she will go,” he said.

Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Owens was primarily responsible for coming up with a game plan for the Irish against Robert Morris. She saw many facets of the Colonials’ game of which the Irish have to be aware.

“Their point guard (5-foot-9 senior Anna Niki Stamolamprou from Greece) is a fantastic guard,” said Owens.

Rebeca Navarro of Spain is another starter for Robert Morris. The 5-11 senior is averaging 8.7 points per game.

“Stamolamprou uses the ball screen well, can drive it, shoot and pass. We will have to be playing well defensively.”

Stamaolamprou is the Colonials leading scorer at 16.5 points a game.

Owens also knows the Irish have to push the tempo.

“I like the sets they run. They are smart. They are always in control of the tempo of the game,” she said. “We have seen different types of tempos during the season. We want to push the ball. The half-court game is not who we are or how we play.”

McGraw hopes the Irish can get off to a fast start.

“Normally I like the break after the ACC tourney,” she said. “We were really playing well in the ACC. I wish we were playing a little earlier.”

The Irish have been idle since March 2.

Allen and ND sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale think the years of tourney experience will help the Irish.

“We just need to continue to play our game and focus on ourselves,” said Allen.

Ogunbowale said that having another year has made her more comfortable entering the tourney.

“Their foreign players play a little crafty. They are very intelligent. They see the game a little differently and really know how to use their bodies,” said Allen, who will be making her 146th career start for the Irish.

Buscaglia, Robert Morris’ first-year coach who succeeded his father with the Colonials, offered a unique perspective to the No. 1-vs.-No. 16 matchup.

“We have had challenges," he said. "We will go out to battle. I expect my team to fight. We will play with humility, and whatever happens we will be proud."

The Colonials are champions of the Northeast Conference and will be making their fifth NCAA appearance. Notre Dame has been in 24 NCAA tourneys, including the last 22 straight.

Notre Dame defeated Robert Morris 93-42 in a first-round game in Toledo in 2014. Last season the Colonials drew No. 1 ranked Connecticut in their first round game.

Notre Dame posted its largest NCAA victory as a No. 1 seed on St. Patrick’s Day in 2001 — the year the Irish won the national title. They defeated Alcorn State, 98-49, to start that run to the championship.

The Irish have had solid success in NCAA tourney play, including having won 10 straight when serving as a host in the first two rounds. Notre Dame will be trying to build on a 14-game winning streak. This is the seventh time it has been a No. 1 seed. It has posted a 27-5 record in tourney play the six previous times as a top seed. The Irish are 53-22 in all NCAA tourney play.

Buscaglia knows what his team is up against when tangling with the Irish on their home court. “They are big, fast and strong,” he said. “They have excellent balance.”

Those are the ingredients that Notre Dame has relied on all season — the same ones they hope to carry them into Sunday’s second-round game. The winner of the Irish-Colonials contest will meet the Purdue-Green Bay winner on Sunday evening at Notre Dame. Game time is still to be determined.

Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen (15) puts up a shot past Diamond Thompson (35) and Brianna Turner (11) during a practice at Purcell Pavilion Thursday in advance of the first round of the NCAA Division 1 Women's Basketball Tournament. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)