Ashley Barlow and Melissa Lechlitner celebrate after defeating Oklahoma in the 2008 NCAA tournament (AP)

Notre Dame-Oklahoma Preview

March 28, 2010

Irish NCAA Tournament Central

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Oklahoma and Notre Dame last squared off in a near-empty gym in St. Thomas in late November, one day after the Sooners lost their emotional leader, guard Whitney Hand, to a season-ending knee injury.

The Sooners would love to forget about that one, since the Fighting Irish ran them out of the gym.

Now they can’t avoid it.

The third-seeded Sooners (25-10) get another crack at the Fighting Irish (29-5) on Sunday night. This time it’ll be in the Kansas City Regional semifinals, before a bigger crowd in a city Oklahoma knows so well.

The Sooners are rejuvenated, retooled and looking to settle a score with the Fighting Irish, who beat them 81-71 on Nov. 28. Oklahoma also lost to Notre Dame in the second round of 2008 NCAA tournament – in overtime, no less – so motivation certainly won’t be an issue.

“It’s kind of like payback,” Oklahoma forward Amanda Thompson said.

The Sooners rallied to an 11-5 mark in the brutal Big 12, reaching their fourth regional semifinal in five years behind a guard-oriented attack led by star Danielle Robinson.

After playing a supporting role to Courtney and Ashley Paris during the Sooners’ Final Four run in 2009, Robinson emerged as Oklahoma’s floor leader with a team-leading 16.7 points, 5.2 assists and 68 steals.

Robinson won’t be the only guard to watch on Sunday night, though.

She’ll be matched up with Notre Dame’s tremendous freshman, Skylar Diggins, in what promises to be an intriguing backcourt tussle.

Diggins has emerged as an indispensable player for the veteran Irish. Diggins leads Notre Dame with 13.9 points a game, and she exploded for 31 points, seven steals and six assists in an 84-66 second-round win over Vermont.

“She does so many little things, intangible things,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s got the intensity, the drive, the focus, the sense of urgency that you would think only seniors would have.”

Notre Dame is back in the regional semifinals for the eighth time in 14 years. While the Irish’s record this season is impressive in its own right, it could also be considered a bit misleading.

After all, Notre Dame is 29-2 against teams not named Connecticut.

The Fighting Irish rolled through the first two rounds, too, beating Cleveland State and the Catamounts by an average of 23 points. They’re deep and experienced, with four talented seniors surrounding Diggins in the starting lineup and one of the nation’s best benches.

Senior guard Lindsay Schrader is averaging 11 points and 6.9 rebounds a game and fellow senior Ashley Barlow is right behind her with 10.9 points and 5.1 boards a night.

Reserve forward Devereaux Peters is shooting 55 percent from the floor in her past 11 games and forward Becca Bruszewski is averaging nine points a game since moving into a bench role six games ago.

“It’s nice to have that depth,” McGraw said. “We don’t have to worry so much about foul trouble, and we can really keep the pressure on defensively while we’re resting some of our starters.”

While Robinson’s been the key player for Oklahoma, she’s also gotten plenty of help.

Thompson joined Robinson as a first-team All-Big 12 pick, and she’s been at her best in the postseason. Dating back to the Big 12 tournament, which was also in Kansas City, Thompson has posted four double-doubles in five games.

Oklahoma can also lean on forward/guard Nyeshia Stevenson, who’s had a breakout senior season with 13.9 points a game.

Notre Dame faced a shell-shocked Sooners club the last time it saw them. Robinson described Oklahoma’s first outing without Hand as “horrible,” and the 20-0 second-half run the Irish used to put the Sooners away certainly backs up her claim.

Oklahoma is a much better team four months later, having been tested by the nation’s toughest schedule. Notre Dame is too, though, which is why their rematch promises to be a good one.

“Over the course of the season we’ve figured out how to win games. It’s not always pretty, but it’s been quite effective,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “We’re both different teams than we were at that time.”