SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame’s path in the NCAA Tournament as it attempts to make it to its fifth straight Final Four won’t be easy.
The Oklahoma City Regional includes fifth-ranked Baylor (30-3), perennial power Stanford (24-9), which is ranked No. 14, a Miami (19-12) team that beat the Irish and DePaul (26-7), which lost to the Irish in overtime in December only because Jewell Loyd scored a career-best 41 points and because the Blue Demons were 12 of 29 from the free-throw line.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said like every other coach in the tournament, she believes the second-ranked Irish (31-2) are in the toughest bracket. But McGraw she said she has no problem with the Irish being placed in Oklahoma City instead of the Greensboro Regional where some though they would land.
“I think the women’s game is at a point where we have to attract a lot of fans and I think South Carolina going to Greensboro just makes a lot of sense,” she said.
But she also said playing Baylor in Big 12 territory would be a challenge.
“That would be a home court advantage for them,” she said.
Loyd said the Irish players aren’t concerned about whether it’s a difficult bracket.
“It’s the tournament. Everyone is playing with more passion, more desire. So you just have to take it one game at a time,” she said. “I was just excited to see our name up there and have the opportunity to do great things.”
The Irish will be opening the tournament with home-court advantage 7:30 p.m. Friday against Big Sky Conference champion Montana (24-8), which is making its 21st NCAA Tournament appearance. In the other game in South Bend, Minnesota (23-9), led by Amanda Zahui B., will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009 against DePaul (26-7).
McGraw said Notre Dame’s win over the Blue Demons helped set the tone for the season.
“That’s one of the games that could have turned our program around,” McGraw said.
Notre Dame heads into the NCAA Tournament looking to break a familiar pattern.
The Irish are a No. 1 seed for the fourth straight season, ranked No. 2 for a third straight year and will be favored to join a select group of LSU, Stanford and Connecticut twice to advance to five straight Final Fours.
“We have a team that’s really hungry,” Loyd said. “We’re just trying to play our best basketball at the end of the season and enjoy the ride.”
McGraw said this Notre Dame, which has no seniors making significant contributions, has overachieved compared to other recent Irish squads.
“I think this team has had to battle more. I think we’ve had to overcome some things. I think we’ve been challenged a little more. I think we’re probably overachieving a little bit more than some of the other teams because we didn’t have quite the experience. But they certainly earned where they are.”