Natalie Achonwa (left) and Markisha Wright at Saturday's practice

Notre Dame Begins Title Quest in Iowa City

March 24, 2013

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – Notre Dame came into the season with a few goals. Now with two of the main ones accomplished, the Irish can turn their attention to the NCAA tournament.

Top-seeded Notre Dame (31-1) starts its quest to return to the Final Four on Sunday against Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee Martin (19-14) in the first-round of the NCAAs at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In the other first-round game, eighth-seeded Miami (21-10) takes on host Iowa (20-12), one of 13 schools in the nation to play in its sixth straight NCAA tournament.

The Irish, who are riding a school-record 26-game winning streak, have made the NCAA title game the past two seasons falling both times. Now the Irish hope to get back there again and get the school’s second national championship.

McGraw said her team’s resiliency and chronic state of dissatisfaction has fueled their success. The Fighting Irish never stop searching for ways to improve.

“They come in after a win and we’re going to watch what we did wrong,” McGraw said. “We don’t really look at what we’re doing well so much as how we can get better, and this team relishes that. They love to be challenged. They want to get better.”

Notre Dame swept the BIG EAST Conference regular-season and tournament titles, becoming the first school other than Connecticut to accomplish the feat since 1993.

The Fighting Irish’s lone loss this season came at home to top-ranked Baylor back on Dec. 5. Notre Dame hasn’t lost since, despite being tested with three wins against UConn, two against Louisville and others against Tennessee and Purdue.

“We understand what it takes to get there,” senior Skylar Diggins said. “The conference schedule that we play is so tough. I’ve said this before – you’re playing elite-level Final Four, Sweet 16 games all the time. I think ultimately that’s what really prepared us for the tournament.”

Notre Dame averages 80.8 points per game and boasts a balanced offense. Ten of the 11 players on the roster have scored in double figures at least once, including five with 20-point games.

The three-time All-American Diggins leads the Fighting Irish with 17 points and almost six assists per game. The senior guard is 52 points shy of the school’s career scoring mark.

Notre Dame shouldn’t intimidate Tennessee Martin.

The Skyhawks played Baylor, Stanford, Louisville and Purdue during their non-conference schedule.

Tennessee Martin is the only team in the nation with two top-10 scorers. Jasmine Newsome (22.9 points per game) and Heather Butler (22) account for more than 60 percent of the scoring by the Skyhawks.

The guards weren’t heavily recruited, perhaps because of their size.

“They look more like cheerleaders than basketball players,” Tennessee Martin coach Kevin McMillan said.

The 5-foot-5 Butler played for McMillan in high school. The 5-6 Newsome’s dad reached out to McMillan after paying close attention to his career path from nearby Millington, Tenn.

OBAMA PICKS NOTRE DAME TO RETURN TO TITLE GAME: President Barack Obama is going with a championship rematch in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

In his 2013 bracket, he has Brittney Griner and Baylor defeating Notre Dame in the April 9 final in New Orleans, which would give the Bears back-to-back titles.

The president also selected Connecticut and California to advance to the Final Four. Baylor features 6-foot-8 dunking sensation Griner, who Obama said has “just been spectacular.”

Griner’s team is on a 30-game winning streak after an early loss to Stanford.

Obama’s picks were announced Friday on ESPN. He filled out his bracket Tuesday before departing on his Middle East trip. He chose Indiana to beat Louisville for the men’s title.

Obama also praised Skylar Diggins, saying the Irish guard competes with “a lot of poise, a lot of heart.”

He has sixth-seeded Delaware – Vice President Joe Biden’s home state – and standout Elena Delle defeating West Virginia and North Carolina in the early rounds. Obama said his daughter Sasha plays in a recreational basketball league with Biden’s granddaughter.

“Women players have gotten so much better than they were even 10 years ago,” he said. “The athleticism, the skill levels. You’re seeing how it’s impacting younger kids.”

Baylor, Connecticut and Notre Dame are the No. 1 seeds, and California is a No. 2 seed.