March 27, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Lynetta Kizer and her fellow Maryland seniors have followed this path before. They hope it ends in a different place.
For the second time in four years, the Terrapins won an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, claimed a high seed in the NCAA tournament and rolled to the Raleigh Regional finals.
No. 2 seed Maryland (31-4) meets top-seeded Notre Dame (33-3) on Tuesday night with a spot in the Final Four on the line.
And while the Fighting Irish have played with a noticeable edge throughout this postseason – determined to return to the national championship game after losing at that stage a year ago – the Terrapins say they have something to prove, too.
“I think we just bring it right back at them,” Maryland guard Lauren Mincy said. “We’re going to have to come out with a lot of energy, and we have to play like there’s a chip on our shoulders also.”
This is a familiar scenario for a Maryland team that won its last ACC tournament in 2009, when Kizer was a freshman. Those Terps advanced to the round of eight but were knocked off by Louisville the last time a regional was held in Raleigh.
“I honestly didn’t believe I knew what was at stake, being so young” that year, Kizer said. The current players “are a group of smart girls, so they know what’s at stake, and they know how hard we’re going to have to play for each other.”
Without question, Notre Dame has played with a purpose this postseason.
The Irish have won all three games by double figures and are coming off a 44-point semifinal beatdown of St. Bonaventure that matched the 22-year-old record for most lopsided victory in the regional round of the tournament.
They’ve been fueled by their title-game loss to Texas A&M last year – and could’ve had a rematch with the Aggies, had Maryland not rallied from 18 points down to beat them in the other semifinal.
The Irish players insist they weren’t disappointed by that.
“When the brackets came out, there was always the chance we could face each other,” Notre Dame guard Brittany Mallory said. “We’ve used that game as motivation this year, and we’ve really used it to keep us going. We want to get back to that game. I don’t think there’s really any disappointment. All these teams are here for a reason, and we’re all going to play hard.”
Notre Dame made it to the Final Four each of the previous three times it reached the round of eight. Maryland is 3-4 in the regional finals, and its only Final Four under coach Brenda Frese came during its run to the 2006 national championship.
The team that claims a trip to Denver might be the one that more effectively imposes its style.
Both teams certainly know how to score – the Irish rank second nationally by averaging 79 points, with Maryland (78) two spots behind them – but they do it in different ways.
The Irish’s strength is a four-guard starting lineup that rolls up lots of assists and steals. Behind BIG EAST Player of the Year Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame ranks fifth in points allowed (51.6), fourth in field-goal percentage (47.6 percent), fourth in assists (18) and second in steals (13).
The Terrapins – who have four starters who are 6 feet or taller – prefer to pound the ball to their elite interior players and have them bang the boards for second chances.
Maryland ranks second nationally with a rebounding margin of plus-14, with Tianna Hawkins leading the nation by making nearly 63 percent of her shots, and ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas doing all the little things to keep the Terps rolling.
“We love to use our length and get on the glass, so we know that gives a lot of teams a lot of trouble,” Thomas said. “We’re able to use that on defense and create havoc out there. We know we have a height advantage on them, especially inside, so I know our inside game’s going to be a huge (focus) for us” Tuesday.
Making up for that rebounding deficiency is nothing new in this tournament for Notre Dame.
The only Division I team with a better rebounding margin than Maryland is Liberty (plus-15.6), and the Irish routed the Flames by 31 points in the first round. Then they claimed an 11-point win in the second round against California, which ranks third nationally at plus-12.6.
Devereaux Peters, the Irish’s only starter taller than 5-foot-11, leads her team with an average of 9.4 rebounds.
“We have to go back to the fundamentals, really focusing on boxing out and pushing people back,” Peters said. “It’s been a problem we’ve had all year. I think we’ve improved on it during the tournament. We’ve seen a lot of great teams that rebounded really well, so hopefully we can do the same thing.”