Irish ready to gear up for NCAA run
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP)
Skylar Diggins was raring to go after a couple of days off. Notre Dame's star point guard, like the rest of her teammates, had been waiting for the NCAA tournament to come around since they were beaten in the finals last season.
After 30 wins, a regular-season Big East title and a disappointing loss in the conference tournament finals, the Irish have a No. 1 seed and now they're ready for what's ahead. Their NCAA trek stars Sunday at home against Liberty in the Raleigh region.
''We were able to rest our bodies and recover,'' Diggins said. ''Now, everybody is so anxious to get back on the court that that is going to play into it. We're fine. We're prepared.''
The Irish won their way into the NCAA championship game a year ago by beating Tennessee and UConn back-to-back with Diggins leading the way, averaging 19.3 points and nearly six assists in six tourney games. Then came a six-point loss to Texas A&M in the finals, a defeat that's been a motivating point all season.
Coach Muffet McGraw is convinced Diggins is even better than a year ago, studying film and expanding her game. She's averaged 17 points a game this season.
''She really managed the game better this year. Last year, she did a really good job and in the NCAA tournament, she really stepped forward,'' McGraw said.
''She knows when to pass and when to shoot. She is comfortable passing, and she isn't trying too hard to score or to make a pass. She takes what the defense gives her. ... Her ability to see the floor and go full speed with the ball makes us a dangerous team in transition.''
During practice sessions since losing to UConn in the tournament finals March 6, the Irish have worked hard on rebounding, one of Liberty's strengths.
Liberty (24-8), the Big South champion, outrebounded opponents by an average of 16.4. And 6-3 center Avery Warley averaged 11.6 boards and 13.1 points per game. Devon Brown led the Flames with a 16.9 point average. Liberty must cut down on its turnovers - about 20 per game - and be able to handle Notre Dame's defense led by Diggins.
''It wasn't a shock. We kind of had an idea that we would be playing them, `' Brown said of facing the Irish.
''It's just another game for us.''
The winner will meet either No. 8 Iowa (19-11) or No. 9 California (24-9) on Tuesday, also at the Purcell Pavilion, where Notre Dame was 15-1 this season.
''It's out of our control,'' Liberty coach Carey Green said of Notre Dame's home court advantage.
''In the dynamics of women's basketball, just from a financial economic perspective, women's basketball is doing what they have to do right now. In the future, as it continues to grow, the women's tournament will probably venture away from these home court advantages. It is what it is.''
The Irish's three losses were at Baylor, at home against West Virginia and then in the tournament championship to UConn, a team they also beat two twice.
''I think there was a little bit of a relief when the regular season was over and we got the No. 1 seed,'' McGraw said.
''It was incredibly difficult to be expected to win every game we were going into and to handle it as well as we did and to never be really able to celebrate it because there was something more coming. ... Now it is back to zero.''
Three of the Cal's nine losses were to No. 2 Stanford, including one in the finals of the Big 12 tourney.
Cal's also been especially tough on the boards and led by 6-2 Gennifer Brandon, 6-3 Reshanda Gray and 6-3 Talia Caldwell had an average rebound margin of 13.2 over its opponents this season.
No player on Cal's current roster has been to the NCAA tournament before as the Golden Bears are making their first trip since 2009.
''I've never been here before so it is something that when you don't hear your name called and the difference when you do, it was ecstatic,'' leading scorer Layshia Clarendon said.
''It's that thing of not having it and then having it. You appreciate hearing your name called and you get to write your name in the NCAA bracket as opposed to the WNIT bracket. It is a great experience, a humbling experience because we worked so hard to get here.''
Sunday's game starts at 12:10, which is 9:10 a.m. on the west coast, a little bit early. First-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb brought her team to town Thursday to get acclimated to the time change and says it's now not a big deal.
''I can tell this team they are playing on the moon at 3 a.m., and when that ball is tipped, I think they would be ready to go,'' she said. ''I don't think it will be a factor.''
Iowa could be a bit rusty, not having played for more than two weeks. The Hawkeyes won eight straight before losing to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament March 2. Six of those wins came after leading scorer Jaime Printy (16.9 ppg) tore her ACL at Wisconsin on Feb. 2.
''The first thought that went through your head when she went down was ... I can't say it,'' Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
''You are completely sick. Anytime a player gets hurt, it's an awful situation for any team. But when you take a person that has been in the starting lineup for three years and is the leading scorer and was pre-season pick all-Big Ten, it is a little bit magnified. ... Even though Jamie was our leading scorer and took the most shots, truly our team has never been a team that has been star-oriented or that we have set everything up for this player.''
Kamille Wahlin has really stepped up her game, averaging 17 points since Printy was hurt.
''I think everyone is going to pitch in a little extra, because they know that's what they have to do,'' Wahlin said.
Making their fifth straight trip to the NCAAs, the Hawkeyes are hoping their long respite won't have an effect, but it's been difficult keeping an edge by scrimmaging and practicing for more than two weeks.
''It is a strange layoff, too, because it is the only time of the year when you don't know where you are going to play, who you are going to play and when you are going to play,'' Bluder said. ''So we go through about a 12-day period when we don't even know who the opponent is going to be, so that time you work on your weaknesses. You look at what you need to do to make your team better and then after Monday night, we shifted the focus to California.''