March 18, 2011
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah coach Anthony Levrets considered slipping a tape of “Rudy” into his team’s pre-game preparations just so his players understood the great tradition that is Notre Dame.
Then again, why mess with young minds?
“We’re so young and so new that I don’t think they know what it means to be intimidated,” said Levrets, who also still has the interim tag next to his title since taking over for Elaine Elliott while she is on leave and considering retirement. “They know they’re a real good basketball team and respect them because they’re a really good basketball team, but not because they’re Notre Dame.”
The 15th-seeded Utes, who earned a spot in the NCAA tournament thanks to a surprising run through the Mountain West Conference tournament, will face the second-seeded Irish (26-7) in a first-round game Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Advancing for Utah (18-16) means getting past a team ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll after making it to the BIG EAST final against top-ranked UConn. It means toppling a team led by a coach in her 24th season who has taken the Irish to the round of 16 eight times and to the Final Four twice, winning it all in 2001.
It helps that Utah will be playing before its home crowd.
“We already did what everybody thought we couldn’t,” said Utah point guard Janita Badon. “I think it’s our turn to shock the world again. We’re capable of doing that.”
It will take some doing.
Notre Dame has beaten opponents by more than 22 points on average this season, hasn’t lost two in a row since falling to UCLA and Kentucky early, and posted quality wins over Top 25 foes DePaul, Georgetown, West Virginia, St. John’s and Syracuse. The Irish also have 10 wins over teams that qualified for this year’s NCAAs.
All this despite graduating four starters from last year’s team that made it to the regional semifinals before losing in overtime to Oklahoma.
“This team exceeded my expectations,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, whose team was picked to finish fifth in the BIG EAST. “We’ve gotten better every game. We have really good chemistry, good leadership, a lot of complementary players … all the things that you need.”
McGraw knows Utah has the momentum and the size.
“We haven’t played anybody all year that has that size in their front line,” she said of Utah starters Michelle Plouffe (6-4), Michelle Harrison (6-3) and Diana Rolniak (6-4).
The comments elicited a chuckle from Levrets, who joked that McGraw was sandbagging.
“They play in the BIG EAST for cryin’ out loud,” he said. “Their bigs might be an inch shorter than our bigs, but they’re athletic and really talented. I don’t think the size difference for us is a huge advantage.”
While the Utes have momentum, winning four games in five days capped by Plouffe’s buzzer-beater to help Utah claim the Mountain West tourney title, the Irish have memories of a run cut short last year.
“We took a lot from that,” said guard Brittany Mallory. “We were angry with ourselves. We knew we could play better and took it to heart.”
GREEN WITH ENVY: Notre Dame players and female coaches will be easy to spot off the court as well as on it. Since 1997, it’s been a Fighting Irish tradition to wear green nail polish throughout the NCAAs.
The Irish scored a second-round win on St. Patrick’s Day at Texas that year and went on to their first Final Four. As a show of solidarity, the male members of the travel party usually paint their left pinky green, and some (including associate head coach Jonathan Tsipis) have even gone so far as to shave their heads for the tournament.
Notre Dame is a No. 2 seed facing No. 15 Utah in the first round of the Dayton Regional in Salt Lake City.