Notre Dame women's basketball set for Stanford chess game in Elite Eight

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Call it a regional rubber match.

For the third straight year two elite women's basketball programs will meet in an NCAA Regional contest.

Notre Dame was a winner in 2015 and Stanford last year, setting up Sunday’s rematch (noon, ESPN) with a berth in next weekends’ Final Four in Dallas on the line.

“I don’t see it as revenge,” said Notre Dame point guard Lindsay Allen. “We beat them two years ago and they beat us last year. I guess this game could technically be a tie-breaker type of game. So I think the real motivation is to get to the Final Four and continue to play.”

The No. 1-seeded Irish and No. 2 Stanford have a rich history and remain two of the country's best.

Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer has won 1,011 games, second all-time only to the late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s 1,098. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is sixth on the all-time list with 853 victories.

The Irish enter Sunday’s clash with a 33-3 record and riding a 17-game winning streak, following a 99-76 dismantling of Ohio State in the regional semifinal. Stanford is 31-5 and has won nine of its last 10 games, knocking out Texas, 77-66 Friday night. 

“She’s a phenomenal coach,” McGraw said of VanDerveer. “She is incredibly smart which makes her teams really smart. They’re very, very difficult to beat.”

So it will take a smart, well-executed game by the Irish to reach their eighth Final Four. Stanford has been in 19 Elite Eights and to the Final Four 12 times. Stanford won the national championship in 1990 and 1992, while the Irish claimed their crown in 2001.

VanDerveer was not surprised at the way Notre Dame played Friday —  minus standout Brianna Turner who is lost for the year with a knee injury — in a blowout victory over Ohio State.

 “Their team has a lot of offensive weapons,” she said. “They are able to put a puzzle together differently with really outstanding offensive players.''

And the Irish are hoping the formula they used to dump Ohio State can work again against a deeper, more veteran Cardinal team. McGraw devised an offensive wrinkle Friday night that paid off.

The Irish spread the floor with perimeter players and when Ohio State came out to apply pressure, Notre Dame found holes inside, particularly with 5-8 guard Arike Ogunbowale who took over with 32 points.

That offensive scheme and some hot shooting (52.3 percent) helped Notre Dame put up 99 points, the most it ever has scored in NCAA play.

Will that work again?

 “I don’t think I really envisioned the game (against Ohio State) going like it did,'' McGraw said. "I think it showed we are a team that’s hard to guard.”

 “Obviously (the loss of Turner) took away a lot of things we normally get, but we’re playing a little different right now and I think it’s kind of a free, loose, fun type of game.”

With the exception of Turner, Notre Dame is healthy. Even Kathryn Westbeld, who played 33 minutes Friday on an ankle bone bruise, was ready for Sunday. After getting a double-double Friday (10 points and 11 rebounds), she said the pain level's “not too bad. I’ve got a little work to do, but it feels pretty good.” 

It was only this week that Westbeld resumed practicing. Though she has played in games, with her minutes limited, she had not practiced since Jan. 22.

How can the Irish prepare for Stanford with only one day to get ready?

 “I think with this team it’s just kind of refining things, looking for mismatches we have and making sure we’re exploiting those and just remembering those,” Allen said.

Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen (15) takes the court for a second-round game against Purdue in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 19, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 88-82. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame 33-3 vs. No. 2 seed Stanford (31-5).

WHEN: Sunday at noon.

WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPN

INTERNET: WatchESPN

RADIO: Pulse FM, 96.9

Game notes: Lindsay Allen has 109 assists in NCAA competition. That ranks fourth all-time in women’s basketball. Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins is third on that list with 123. The all-time leader is Tameka Johnson of LSU with 136. Allen has had plenty of offensive success against Stanford. Averaging 9.6 points a game this season she scored 28 against the Cardinal two years ago and 20 last year ... In the past six seasons, only Connecticut has registered more victories than Notre Dame. The Irish have won 209, while the Huskies have won 219 following Saturday's win ...  Stanford leads the all-time series with Notre Dame, 3-1 ... Notre Dame never has lost an Elite Eight game, having won the previous seven ... Stanford scores at a 72.1 point pace, while the Irish average 80.2. Defensively, Stanford only allows 55.8 points. Notre Dame gives up 61.9 points ... Erica McCall, a 6-foot-3 senior, leads Stanford with a 14.6 average, followed by 6-0 junior Brittany McPhee at 13.0 and 6-0 senior Karlie Samuelson at 12.7.