Notre Dame's defense must be on the spot against Oregon
SPOKANE, Wash. — Kelly Graves was here seven years ago — same building, same situation — with a chance to go to the Final Four.
The difference now in bringing No. 2 seed Oregon to the regional final, and the run Graves led with upstart Gonzaga back in 2011, is these Ducks expected to be in this position.
"I really feel that our team is confident. They're ready. I mean, they know what we're up against," Graves said. "I think we all feel that we're a good basketball team, and we have a chance tomorrow (Monday) for 40 minutes to go prove it."
To reach the first Final Four in school history, the Ducks (33-4) will need to take down No. 1 seed Notre Dame (32-3) in the Spokane Regional final on Monday night. Oregon was here in this position a year ago as a No. 10 seed and got routed by UConn in the regional final. And Graves was here in 2011 when Gonzaga — a No. 11 seed led by Courtney Vandersloot — made a memorable run to the Elite Eight before falling to Stanford.
But Graves has never had a more talented team led by star guard Sabrina Ionescu.
"She can just pick you apart. I mean, she's just so smart and crafty with the ball," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "It's fun watching her when you're not on the other bench."
Graves has taken lessons from all his teams, first at Saint Mary's, then Gonzaga and now with the Ducks. One of those came from that first Elite Eight experience seven years ago which he's carried forward since. Gonzaga made the Sweet 16 in 2010 and prior to the 2011 season, the Bulldogs made the goal of reaching a regional final. It was written on the white board of their locker room as the stated mission.
So when the Bulldogs got there by pulling off three tourney upsets, they had met their objective.
"That's what the team had set as their goal that year, and well we achieved it," Graves recalled. "I'm serious, on this (practice) day that year, I couldn't get their attention in practice. They were giddy, and I think they had mentally said 'That was our goal, we had accomplished it.' And here I am going 'We're one game away from the Final Four. We can do this. We can beat Stanford.' ... And I learned a lesson."
Now, Graves simply puts a message reminding his team to compete to their fullest. He doesn't want a ceiling attached to what his team can accomplish.
"Don't put the limitation, let's just get better and then see where that takes us," he said. "Are we good enough to go this far or are we not? I tell them we are good enough. I've seen it. We are good enough."
The reason Graves thinks Oregon is good enough goes beyond Ionescu. That's not to diminish the Pac-12 player of the year, but a sign of Oregon's depth. Ruthy Hebard, 6-foot-4, is shooting 66 percent for the season and had 23 points and 14 rebounds against Central Michigan in the round of 16. The Ducks had five players average in double figures during the regular season, and while Satou Sabally and Maite Cazorla have struggled scoring in the tournament, Oregon's received a boost from Oti Gildon averaging nearly 11 points off the bench during the NCAAs.
"They can score at all different positions, so we don't have to focus on one person, focus on everybody," Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale said. "It's going to be a team defensive game."
For Notre Dame, reaching this point of the tournament is the norm. The Fighting Irish have played in the regional final in seven of the past eight seasons. In five of those seasons, the Irish have advanced to the Final Four. Reaching the Final Four this time would rank among the biggest accomplishments of McGraw's career after a season in which Notre Dame has been beset by injuries. The Irish played just seven players in the Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M — four of them playing at least 37 minutes.
While Ogunbowale's perimeter play and Jessica Shepard on the interior get most of the attention the key for the Irish could be if Marina Mabrey continues to shoot well from the outside. Mabrey has 15 3-pointers in three tournament games, including a career-high seven against Texas A&M.
"Both teams have high-powered offenses. It's going to be a matter of who can get some stops," McGraw said.
WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (32-3) vs. No. 2 seed Oregon (33-4)
WHAT: NCAA Women's Tournament Spokane Regional final
WHERE: At Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena
WHEN: 9 p.m.
RADIO: WHPZ (96.9 FM), WHPD (92.1 FM)