March 23, 2010
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) – Vermont’s victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament opening round wasn’t satisfying enough.
The 10th-seeded Catamounts (27-6) want more after getting the first tournament win in school history. They want their first trip to the Sweet 16. They want their first win against a top 10 team. They want to beat second-seed Notre Dame (28-5) on its home floor Tuesday night.
“Every step you take, you think you’re going to be happy with that step. But once you achieve that step, you want the next step,” Vermont coach Sharon Dawley said Monday. “We all said if we can just win that (America East) championship and go the NCAA we’d be happy. Then we said if we could win that first-round game, we’d be happy. Last night we said, ‘If we can make the Sweet 16, we’ll be happy.”
While the Catamounts are seeking their first trip to the NCAA regional semifinal, the Fighting Irish are seeking their eighth trip in 14 years. Yet it was Notre Dame that looked nervous in its opening-round game Sunday night in front of their own fans.
The Irish turned the ball over on their first possession, made just one of their first six shots and continually lost track of Cleveland State’s best shooter, Kailey Klein, as she scored 21 straight points for the Vikings. Notre Dame led the 15th-seeded Vikings by just three points with four minutes left in the first half and looked like a team worried about getting knocked out of the tournament on its home court for a second straight year.
Center Erica Williamson said Notre Dame just needed to get some jitters out after not playing in nearly two weeks.
“We stumbled a little, obviously, with turnovers in the first half, but we definitely rebounded in the second,” she said.
Coach Muffet McGraw believes the Irish might have been too hyped to play after sitting through the first game. She said her team seemed tired by the time they reached the first timeout.
“We were a little bit drained because of the adrenaline rush of the whole tournament and I think we played tired in the first half,” she said. “Overall, we were a little sluggish.”
It was a stark contrast to the Catamounts, who sang and danced their way through pre-game warmups and shimmied on the sideline during the game.
“I just think that’s part of our team identity,” guard Courtnay Pilypaitis said. “We all know that if we’re happy and we’ve got smiles and dancing we just play better.”
Dawley said it’s just the team’s personality.
“They have to be high-fiving. They have to be dancing. It sounds crazy. But when you find something that works, you go with it,” she said.
The Catamounts said it helped that they played a challenging non-conference schedule with games against Connecticut and Nebraska, which are both No. 1 seeds in the tournament, and also played fourth-seeded Oklahoma State, eighth-seeded Dayton, ninth-seeded North Carolina State and 10th-seeded Hartford.
Vermont went 3-5 against those teams, facing Hartford three times, but is 2-19 all-time against Top 25 teams. The two wins came against No. 22 Boston College in 2007 and against No. 21 Hartford in the America East title game on March 13. Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked No. 7.
The Catamounts say winning an NCAA tournament game already was huge for the school. One more victory would be even bigger.
“It’s expanding our horizons in women’s basketball, because men’s hockey and men’s basketball have done very well for themselves over the past five or 10 years,” forward Alissa Sheftic said. “We’ve certainly had some ups and downs. We’ve been to the NCAA tournament before, but this is a new experience for us playing in the second round. So this is about moving forward, moving up and growing as a team, as a program.”
If Vermont can just make it to Kansas City, the Catamounts will be happy. For now.