April 4, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Notre Dame and Texas A&M are finally meeting for a national championship.
Just not in football.
The two semifinal winners have the biggest stage in women’s basketball to themselves in one of the biggest surprise finals in NCAA tourney history. None of the traditional powers – Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford or Baylor – is around to play, marking the first time since 1994 without a No. 1 seed in the title game.
“This is what women’s basketball needs,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “It needs regional finals, national semifinals and national final games like this to sometimes wake up America.”
And they look a lot alike.
Both rely on stingy defense. Both beat No. 1 seeds in Indy, and both had to take down foes that had beaten them three other times this season. Texas A&M beat top-seeded Baylor in the regional finals to earn their first Final Four trip, while Notre Dame finally got past UConn on Sunday night.
One of the upset winners will become the first No. 2 seed to win it all since Maryland in 2006. And they will do it in an arena less than 10 miles from Butler, the giant-killer playing in its second surprise NCAA men’s championship game on Monday night in Houston.
It will be a surprising end to a season in which everyone expected the tournament bracket to go essentially by the book.
“In some ways, we’re mirror images of each other because we’ve got great guard play and an outstanding defense throughout the tournament,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought throughout the tournament, as I watched them, they would be a very, very tough team to play. Be careful of what you wish for because now we’ve got them.”
Notre Dame has been here before. It also took down UConn in the 2001 national semifinals on its march to a national championship.
Texas A&M (32-5), the national championship newcomer, seems right at home in its first trip to the title game. From the spate of howdys and y’alls being tossed about to the frantic finish in Sunday’s semifinal victory, the Aggies have just tried to be themselves.
“They push it a lot, they run a lot of offense and they have great guards,” Notre Dame senior Devereaux Peters said. “It should be a good championship game.”
Still, it could get ugly, unless you like defense.
Take Stanford, which became the first team in this year’s tourney to top 50 points against the Aggies. That still wasn’t good enough to reach a third title game in four years.
Now comes a meeting with the Irish (31-7), who are 18-2 all-time in tourney games when they hold foes under 60 points. They didn’t do that against UConn’s high-octane offense, which was chasing a third straight title. Maya Moore scored 36 points in her college game, two days earlier than her career was expected to end.
Notre Dame was scrappier, getting to more loose balls, making more key plays and outplaying the Huskies down the stretch.
On Tuesday night, they’ll have to be even better against a Texas A&M team that has mastered the ability to rattle two of the nation’s top teams, namely Baylor and Stanford, in back-to-back games.
Notre Dame will have another advantage, too.
They’re essentially playing a home game, roughly a three-hour drive from their campus in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s top player, Skylar Diggins, was the state’s Miss Basketball two years ago and has played three state championship games at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Over the last 10 minutes of Sunday night’s second semifinal, the crowd noise inside Conseco grew to a crescendo. Irish players responded by going to different locations in the arena and tugging on the front of their jerseys.
It’s the third time in tourney history a team has played the title game in its home state.
But the Aggies don’t believe Notre Dame’s home-court edge will derail their championship plans.
“We’re never out of a game,” guard Sydney Carter said. “We’re a team that doesn’t give up and we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing at the right time. It feels great. I’m just ready to play again.”