The Herald Bulletin

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March 18, 2013

Notre Dame hopes to clear championship hurdle

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Now, Notre Dame will try again to clear that final hurdle.

The Fighting Irish are eyeing a third straight run to the NCAA championship game, and this time they hope to capture the title after coming up short the past two years.

With senior guard Skylar Diggins leading the way, Notre Dame (31-1) won the Big East tournament for the first time after going undefeated in conference play during the regular season and earned the top seed in the Norfolk Region. The Irish’s only loss was at home to Baylor, the team they lost to in last year’s championship game after falling to Texas A&M in the 2011 final.

“With the first two national championships and losing them, we still have that bitter taste,” all-conference forward Natalie Achonwa said. “We know what it feels like. I think playing Baylor earlier this season, too, and playing UConn multiple times in the season, I think we’ve had great opportunities to prepare and kind of gauge where we are and what we need to work on.”

She said the upperclassmen understand what it takes make a run and are passing it on to the underclassmen, giving them a primer on what they’ll face in the NCAA.

“They’ve been there before, we’ve learned from them,” freshman Jewell Loyd said. “They have the notes, they have the secrets. I’m just taking it in, from what they give me.”

Unlike the other No. 1 seeds, the Irish will open the tournament in hostile territory. While Baylor, Stanford and Connecticut all got home games, Notre Dame meets Tennessee-Martin in Iowa City with a potential second-round matchup against Iowa.

The Irish basically shrugged that off. After all, they’re 12-0 on the road, and that includes wins at Tennessee and Connecticut during the regular season, not to mention a victory over the Huskies in the Big East finals in Hartford.

“That definitely helped us,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think our schedule really prepared us for this.”

The Irish are on a program-record 26-game win streak that tied the 2008 women’s soccer team for the third-longest run in the 126-year history of Notre Dame athletics. Only the 2001 softball team (33) and 1965-67 men’s tennis teams (29) have won more in a row.

The fact that they lost three starters from last year, including WNBA first-round draft picks Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel, makes it all the more impressive.

Then again, with Diggins winning her second straight Big East player of the year award, it’s not hard to see why they hit the 30-win mark for the third straight year. She had plenty of help.

There were big contributions from Achonwa and Kayla McBride. Loyd earned freshman of the year honors, and the Irish dominated the Big East even though UConn was picked to win it, beating the Huskies three times. They could meet again in the Final Four.

“I think we’ve had some good tests,” said McGraw, who led the Irish to the national championship in 2001. “I think we’ve weathered a lot of storms and really come through a lot of things, have had different people step up. So I think we’re really tournament ready.”

Notre Dame got a taste of what it’s like to win a championship when it squeezed by UConn in the Big East tournament. Achonwa’s layup with 1.8 seconds left gave the Irish a 61-59 victory and the title in their last year in the conference, not to mention another sweet win over the Huskies after losing to them the six previous times they met in the final.

“The fact that we won Big East gives us a taste of how great it feels to end on a note like that,” Achonwa said. “Especially our upperclassmen know how it feels to lose in a championship game. I think that sour bitterness — we know what it feels like. And to have something where we’re winning, ending our first season on a high note, we’re definitely going to carry that. We want to fight for that.”

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