April 2, 2013
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) – The best phrase Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie to describe doing the unexpected is “the tingle.”
McCallie has experienced it before.
Now, she’s hoping to experience “the tingle” again when the Blue Devils take on top-seeded Notre Dame in the final of the Norfolk Regional on Tuesday night. McCallie and her players know the Fighting Irish are expected to win.
“You don’t really have to be an underdog to get ‘the tingle.” McCallie said Monday, adding that she’s experienced it a few times in her career. The most notable instances were when her 10th-seeded Maine team beat No. 7 seed Stanford in 1999, and again when her top-seeded Michigan State team rallied from 16 down in the final 7 minutes to beat overall No. 1 Tennessee in 2005.
The tingle, McCallie said, is “when your team really goes out there and just totally expresses their power and who they are from start to finish on both sides of the ball, that does just fine.”
Duke (33-2) might need to do all of that to keep the game close against Notre Dame, which has won 29 straight and features All-America senior point guard Skylar Diggins, one of the game’s most dynamic players.
Duke had an All-American too, Chelsea Gray, but the point guard suffered a dislocated right kneecap 10 games ago, and her absence has been evident in the tournament, especially on offense.
After scoring more than 75 points a game during the regular season, Duke is averaging less than 62 through three tournament contests, two of which were played on its home floor. In Sunday’s victory against sixth-seeded Nebraska, the Blue Devils shot 32.8 percent and relied heavily on their defense in a 53-45 victory.
But being expected to lose could work to Duke’s advantage, guard Tricia Liston said.
“I think that gives us a little bit of an edge because we really have nothing to lose in this game, and there’s no pressure on us and nobody thinks we can do this besides ourselves,” she said, “and so I think it can be a source of motivation for us to prove it to ourselves and prove that we belong here.”
The Blue Devils proved that long ago and will be playing in their 11th regional final in 16 years. The problem has been going farther, something they’ve managed just four times, and not since 2006.
Notre Dame has no such issues. The Fighting Irish have played in the last two national-championship games, losing to Texas A&M in 2011 and Baylor last season, and now face Diggins’ last opportunity.
Diggins, who scored 22 of her 27 points by halftime as the Fighting Irish beat Kansas 93-63 on Sunday and became the program’s career scoring leader with her last basket, said she’s careful not to look too far ahead, but can’t help but thinking about a storybook finish to her career.
“It would mean a lot. It would mean a lot, and I can’t say that’s something that’s not in my mind all the time thinking about my last game possibly here and how, whether I like it, the most I have left is three games,” she said.
“We can’t get to that point if we don’t take care of business here, so I try not to look forward too much but instead to focus on the task at hand, and right now, that’s Duke.”
She’s not the only one who envisions that net-cutting finish at the Final Four in New Orleans.
“I want it for her. I want it bad,” coach Muffet McGraw, whose team won the 2001 title, said. “I think she has been such a phenomenal presence in our program, legendary. I don’t think what she’s done is ever going to be matched and I would love to see her go out a champion and whether we win or lose, I think she will go out as a champion, but I think it will be great for her to be able to cut down the nets.”
First, the Fighting Irish have to prevent Duke from slowing things down and making it a possession game, instead using their own defense to create running opportunities that free Diggins up to get creative and find her own chances.
“I think we’re pretty confident where we are right now and how we’ve played all season,” McGraw, in her 26th season, said. “I think our resume, the experience we’ve had on the road and at home, the caliber of opponent I think we’ve beaten, I think gives us great confidence and I hope that serves us well.”
Having an early night Sunday allowed the Blue Devils to watch Louisville stun top-seeded Baylor, and in their unusual role as an underdog, forward Haley Peters said watching the game was a good reminder.
“It was just an example of a team believing in itself and not listening to what other people had to say about the other team and focusing on themselves and just really having a great resolve and believing in themselves,” she said. “I mean, that’s why this tournament’s so great – because of games like that.”
The Blue Devils hope to add to that greatness on Tuesday night.