March 24, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Notre Dame is refusing to look ahead. St. Bonaventure can’t get caught looking back.
Two teams with drastically different perspectives on the women’s NCAA tournament will meet Sunday in one Raleigh Regional semifinal.
The top-seeded Irish (32-3) reached the round of 16 for a school-record third straight year and for the 10th time in 16 seasons, and they’re resisting the urge to peek ahead to a possible rematch with Texas A&M in the regional final. The Aggies – who play Maryland in the other semifinal – beat Notre Dame in last year’s national championship game.
“It’s incentive, because we kind of get the feeling like unfinished business all year,” Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins said Saturday. “This team plays better when we have a chip on our shoulder. … We saw that they were in our region, and we were like, ‘OK, it’s a potential matchup,’ but we both have to win games.”
The fifth-seeded Bonnies (31-3) don’t have any old tournament scores to settle – mainly because they’re in it for the first time.
They’ve obliterated the school’s record for victories – the old mark was 23 – and previously reeled off 18 straight wins earlier this season to set another program mark. They say the pressure’s on Notre Dame and not them, but they refuse to allow themselves the luxury of being satisfied with their accomplishments so far.
“If our season ends tomorrow or down the road, I think we’re going to be happy with where it’s at,” Bonnies guard Jessica Jenkins said. “But we’re not really trying to look back on it yet. We’re trying to keep pulling off a couple more wins.”
St. Bonaventure is the only school playing in Raleigh this weekend without a national championship. In addition to Texas A&M last year, Maryland captured the 2006 title and Notre Dame won it all in 2001.
“One of these things is not like the other, I guess – the old Sesame Street line,” Bonnies coach Jim Crowley quipped. “I seem to be using that a lot, because we seem to be fitting in where we haven’t been before.”
The Irish have been driven by the way they fell short in last April’s championship game.
They watched a seven-point, second-half lead evaporate in a 76-70 loss to Texas A&M. But before they can even think about getting another crack at the Aggies – if they should get past the Terrapins in the first semifinal – they must contend with a St. Bonaventure team that has lost only once since the calendar flipped to 2012.
“That’s been our focus all year, just to really not look past anybody,” Notre Dame guard Brittany Mallory said. “With the experience, it’s just good that we’ve been through it all. Last year, we got to the end. We just need to get back there and win it.”
It might be impossible for the Bonnies – or any opponent, really – to stop all three members of a talented trio that includes Diggins, the BIG EAST player of the year, and indispensable seniors Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters.
“We’re probably going to have to play probably the best defense we’ve played all year to stop them,” Jenkins said.
Diggins averages 16.8 points, while Novosel chips in 15.3 and the versatile Peters contributes 12.1 points and nearly 10 rebounds. When all three score in double figures, the Irish are 13-0.
“I think with (Peters) in the game, we’re a completely different team,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “She does so many things that we really rely on, and certainly she’s a big part of the reason we’re here.”
They’re the biggest contributors to an offense that ranks second nationally by averaging 79 points. They’ve only been held to fewer than 70 points eight times but will face a Bonnies team that hasn’t allowed anyone to crack 70.
St. Bonaventure also could use a big game from Jenkins. The all-Atlantic 10 selection averages nearly 15 points and shoots 41 percent in the Bonnies’ wins, but just eight points on 25 percent shooting in their losses. She has 338 career 3-pointers – the most among active players, and the 12th-most in Division I history.
SWEET TWEETS: The biggest celebrity at the Raleigh Regional is Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins – at least if that’s measured by her number of Twitter followers.
Among the 162,000 – and counting – people who follow her Tweets are Lil Wayne and Chris Brown.
“I’ve had the ability to meet a lot of new people, a lot of new fans,” Diggins said. “And Twitter does a great job of making a direct connection between fans and myself, and things like that. … You kind of just take it in stride and, at the same time, just stay humble, stay yourself.”
REACHING FOR THE SKY: Devereaux Peters and her Irish teammates were well aware that they would be playing against top-notch rebounding teams in Cal and Liberty in the opening rounds of the NCAAs. In fact they were so much aware of it that much of the week’s practice had been spent on rebounding drills.
Now despite her 14-rebound, 11-point, career-high 7-block performance against Cal, Peters knows what lies ahead. More rebounding drills. “We are still not where we need to be,” she said. “I’m sure we will still have a lot of rebounding drills. It is something we have been struggling with all year. (The Cal game) was a step in the right direction.”
Notre Dame had a 40-35 advantage on the boards against the Golden Bears. That step was accomplished against a tough and deep rebounding Cal team that had outrebounded Iowa, 41-29, just two days earlier.
“Cal’s rebounders were very good,” Peters said. “They were extremely athletic and very good posts. My guards helped me out a lot.”
Teammate Skylar Diggins said Peters’ performance was becoming the norm.
“Fourteen rebounds, that’s just something that is regular now,” Diggins said. “She has been stepping that up. The five assists, she’s a good passer and she gets the ball and initiates the offense on the first pass. The seven blocks, I think that is crazy.”
PSU’S WASHINGTON HAD OTHER POSSIBLE CAREER CHOICE: Penn State’s Coquese Washington goes by the title of head coach, but “counselor” works, too.
And Washington still hopes to go by that title more often someday. Washington has a law degree from Notre Dame, where she also played basketball as an undergraduate.
“I never wanted to be a coach. I always wanted to be a lawyer,” Washington mentioned last week while preparing the Lady Lions to meet LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Tuesday night.
Washington has practiced law already, doing so during the offseason early in her professional playing career. The problem with being a lawyer in the offseason, though, was that it involved too much time behind a desk.
Washington, who played in the ABL and WNBA, wanted an offseason gig that would help her stay in shape and keep her playing skills sharp, so she became an assistant at Notre Dame.
“I was like, Yeah, I’ll do this little coaching thing until I get done playing professional basketball, and then along the way I fell in love with coaching and being around the players and helping have an impact on young people. So I decided to stay, but I am adamant about going back to practice law at some point.”
It could be a while though. The 41-year-old Washington has Penn State in its second straight tournament and is considered among the top young head coaches in the game.