DAYTON, Ohio—The teams are different. These players have never met before. That was all in the distant past.
But still, Tennessee is 20-0 against Notre Dame heading into their regional championship game tonight. That’s got to count for something, right?
The Fighting Irish’s Muffet McGraw and the Lady Vols’ Pat Summitt swear they’re coaches and not historians. They are aware of the old meetings but won’t make a big deal out of them.
“That would be really silly of me to bring that up I think,” McGraw said of Notre Dame’s drought against Tennessee, which dates to 1983 and includes an 0-3 mark in the NCAA tournament. “This team is a team that hasn’t played Tennessee. The seniors played them once in Oklahoma City in the regional semifinal. That’s the only time we’ve played them. So certainly we’re not going to be talking about the past.”
Second-seeded Notre Dame (29-7) and top-seed Tennessee (34-2) haven’t met on the court since two engagements three years ago. The score was 87-63 in South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 5, and 74-64 in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City. Of course, Tennessee won both.
Summitt expects McGraw and the Fighting Irish to use the 0-20 mark as fuel to add to the fire.
“Absolutely. If I was in their situation, I would do the same,” she said.
Her players, riding a 25-game winning streak, also figure that it will serve as motivation for Notre Dame to finally try to stamp out all that orange-tinged domination.
“It would be important to any team to be the first to beat Tennessee,” said Shekinna Stricklen, who led the way with 20 points in the Lady Vols’ 85-75 victory over Ohio State in Saturday’s semifinal. “For them to not beat us, we need to buckle down and play great defense and play as a team.”
The Fighting Irish are unbothered by the lopsided nature of the series.
“Me, personally, I haven’t been a part of any of those 20 games. But we know the history between the two programs,” sophomore guard Skylar Diggins said. “Two hall-of-fame coaches, and it’s just going to be a great game. Teams that haven’t met up with each other. We’re obviously looking to break that [losing streak].”
Besides, both sides have enough to worry about dealing with the next 40 minutes on the court instead of 28 years of baggage.
The numbers for both teams are almost identical through 36 games apiece this season: Tennessee is scoring 79.9 points and allowing 55.9 points a game, while Notre Dame is putting up 77.5 points and giving up 55.4 a game.
The Lady Vols come at teams in waves, with nine players scoring against Ohio State in the first half alone and Summit going as deep as 13 players in some games. But at the same time, they have been erratic of late. The team had a players-only meeting early last week after struggling before subduing Marquette 79-70 in Knoxville in the second round.
Then the Lady Vols were outplayed in the opening half on Saturday — although they trailed just 42-40 at the break — leading Summitt to give a roaring halftime speech to shock her team out of its funk.
“She is one of the greatest motivators in sports,” forward Taber Spani said. “After that speech we came out and played a lot different in the second half. We needed to.”
Summitt, who is replacing Kelley Cain with Alyssia Brewer in the starting lineup to make her starters “more mobile,” said it was a pivotal moment for her squad.
“At that time, our coaching staff was desperate to get this team to step up and do what they had to do,” she said.
Notre Dame had no such problems in its semifinal, jumping on sixth-seeded Oklahoma early and coasting to a 78-53 win. The Fighting Irish aren’t stocked with stars, but they’ve got terrific balance. Natalie Novosel leads in scoring at 14.9 points a game, with Diggins right behind at 14.2. Five others hit for at least seven points a game.
In case you were wondering, the Lady Vols have seven players averaging seven points or more a game, too.
So the intensity should be white hot with so many skilled performers playing without regard to foul trouble or weariness.
“It’s going to be a fight between two teams that have the will to come out with the win,” Brewer said. “It’s whoever has the biggest heart.”
The Fighting Irish could be without co-captain Becca Bruszewski, who has a sore knee. She was not cleared for Sunday’s practice but McGraw said she hoped that she would be permitted to play against the Lady Vols.