The Notre Dame Women's Basketball team are one step closer to achieving their goal of becoming National Champions this year, as they head to Raleigh, North Carolina on Sunday to face the Bonaventure Bonnies in the Sweet Sixteen round.
This is the third consecutive season and fourth time in five years that No. 4 Notre Dame will be playing on the second weekend of the NCAA Championship, as the top-seeded Fighting Irish prepare to take on fifth-seeded St. Bonaventure at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday in the semifinals of the NCAA Raleigh Regional.
Notre Dame (32-3) advanced to the Sweet 16 after a 73-62 victory over Cal on Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion. The Fighting Irish broke away from the Bears by opening the second half on a 23-6 run and Cal never got closer than nine points during the remainder of the game.
Senior guard Natalie Novosel scored a game-high 28 points (including an NCAA tournament record 18-of-20 from the foul line), and junior guard Skylar Diggins added 21 points for Notre Dame.
This year's Notre Dame Women's Basketball squad has earned its second BIG EAST title, and first outright championship (first in any league since the 1995 Midwestern Collegiate Conference/Horizon League crown).
The Lady Irish appear in the top 15 of 10 different NCAA statistical categories, including seven top-10 appearances (as of Thursday). The Fighting Irish rank second in scoring offense (79.2 ppg.), while placing third in scoring margin (+27.1 ppg.) and steals (13.1 spg.), fourth in field goal percentage (.471) and assists (18.0 apg.), fifth in turnover margin (+6.74), eighth in scoring defense (52.1 ppg.), 11th in assist/turnover ratio (1.12), 12th in rebounding margin (+9.0 rpg.) and 14th in free throw percentage (.764).
The Notre Dame Women are 12-2 against Top 25 opponents this season (8-2 away from home), including five victories in seven outings against teams in the top 10. The 12 wins over ranked opponents is a school record for an entire season (2000-01), let alone in the regular season (previous was seven in 2003-04 and 2004-05).
The Lady Irish are just the second school ever to defeat both Connecticut and Tennessee in consecutive seasons, matching the feat first pulled off by North Carolina in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Notre Dame is the first school to win three consecutive series games against Connecticut since North Carolina (2004-07) and Tennessee (2005-07), and the first BIG EAST program to do so since Miami (1992-93).
Nine of the 12 Lady Irish victories against Top 25 opponents this season have been by double digits, including four by at least 25 points -- notably a 30-point win at No. 13/14 Rutgers on Jan. 31 (Notre Dame's largest margin of victory ever on the road at a ranked opponent) and a 28-point win over No. 7/9 Tennessee on Jan. 23 (the largest margin of victory ever and fewest points ever allowed by Notre Dame against a top-10 team).
Impressively, the Notre Dame Women's Basketball team has posted back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in school history while reaching that mark for the fourth time in school history (31-7 in 1996-97; 34-2 in 2000-01; 31-8 in 2010-11). The Fighting Irish also notched their 30th win prior to the NCAA Championship for the first time ever.
Of the 32 Fighting Irish wins this season, 21 have come by 20+ points, and a school record-tying 12 by at least 30 points. In 26 victories this year, Notre Dame has held its opponent to 60 points or fewer, with a school-record 18 when the opponent had 50 points or fewer (and a school-record six of 40 or fewer).
Notre Dame is currently ranked No. 4 in the latest Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls, marking the 19th consecutive week the Fighting Irish appeared in the top five of both major national polls. That's the longest uninterrupted streak of consensus top-five poll appearances in school history, topping the previous standard set during the final 18 weeks of the 2000-01 season (Notre Dame was sixth in the preseason AP poll that year).
More on this Sunday's game ... The Notre Dame-St. Bonaventure match up on Sunday will be their first ever meeting.
Bonaventure will be the sixth first-time opponents on this year's Notre Dame schedule. The Fighting Irish opened the season with win over new foes Akron (81-61), Indiana State (99-34) and Hartford (98-43) in the first three rounds of the Preseason WNIT, before ousting Longwood (92-26) on Dec. 28 and winning at Mercer (128-42) on Dec. 30.
The Bonnies are the 193rd different opponent in the 35-year history of Notre Dame women's basketball.
The Lady Irish are 51-7 (.879) against first-time opponents since joining the BIG EAST Conference in 1995-96, including a 31-3 (.912) mark vs. new teams since the start of the 2000-01 season.
In the past 11 years, the Lady Irish are 10-3 (.769) when playing a first-time opponent away from home, with a 6-0 record at neutral sites (3-0 in the NCAA Championship, most recently taking a 62-59 win over California in the first round of the 2007 tournament at Pittsburgh, Pa.).
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw and St. Bonaventure head coach Jim Crowley are two of the four finalists for the 2012 Naismith Coach of the Year award. It's the fifth time McGraw has been a finalist for the honor, while Crowley is a first-time finalist.
The Notre Dame Women are 52-5 (.912) all-time against New York-based teams, including a 25-5 (.833) record away from home and wins in 10 of their last 11 games overall (only loss a 76-71 setback at St. John's on Feb. 16, 2010).
The Fighting Irish are facing their third New York school this season, having already earned victories on the road at St. John's (71-56 on Jan. 28) and Syracuse (74-55 on Feb. 7).
Coincidentally, St. John's and Syracuse account for all five New York wins over Notre Dame (three for the Red Storm, two for the Orange -- four road, one neutral site).
Here are some Lady Irish Big Dance notables ...Each of Notre Dame's 19 NCAA tournament appearances have come during the tenure of 25th-year head coach Muffet McGraw.
Counting this year's win over Liberty, the Fighting Irish now have won their NCAA tournament opener in 15 of the past 17 seasons, dating back to the start of their membership in the BIG EAST Conference (1995-96 to present).
The Notre Dame Women are one of seven schools in the country to have advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 10 times in the past 16 years (1997-2012).
The Lady Irish are one of 11 schools to make three trips to the NCAA Women's Final Four and come away with at least one national championship, going to the semifinals in 1997, the title game in 2011, and winning it all in 2001. Of the others in this elite club, seven were selected for this year's tournament -- Notre Dame, Connecticut, Maryland, Purdue, Stanford, Tennessee and Texas (all but Purdue and Texas have advanced to the Sweet 16).
Including this year's two victories, Notre Dame is 10-2 (.833) all-time in NCAA tournament play at Purcell Pavilion. Between first-round losses to Minnesota in 1994 and 2009, the Fighting Irish won six consecutive NCAA tourney games at home, and they have reached the Sweet 16 five times from Purcell Pavilion (2000, 2001, 2004, 2010, 2012).
The Lady Irish's success in the NCAA Championship can be directly traced to its performance at the defensive end of the floor. In its 19 NCAA tournament trips (50 games), the Fighting Irish are 19-2 (.905) when holding their opponent to 60 points or fewer, adding to that mark with a 74-43 victory over Liberty in their first-round game on March 18 at Purcell Pavilion.
And a few final tidbits about the Lady Irish and their traditions ... or superstitions if you will have it!
The Notre Dame women's basketball program has developed some traditions that should be quite evident during this weekend's NCAA Raleigh Regional games at PNC Arena:
Green nails -- each of the Lady Irish players and female coaches wear green nail polish throughout the NCAA Championship. This tradition started during the 1997 tourney, when the Fighting Irish added the green polish to their fingers prior to their second-round St. Patrick's Day game at Texas, which Notre Dame won 86-83. The Fighting Irish ended up going to their first NCAA Final Four that season and the green nail polish was here to stay. 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.
Green uniforms -- though not limited exclusively to NCAA tournament play, Notre Dame's distinctive kelly green road uniforms have become a staple of the postseason in keeping with the St. Patrick's Day holiday, which often falls during the early rounds of the tournament (and came this year on the day before Notre Dame took the floor for its first-round game against Liberty). The Fighting Irish most recently wore the alternate green road threads in the NCAA Championship for last year's national championship game against Texas A&M (a 76-70 loss) -- Notre Dame is 8-8 (.500) all-time in the NCAA tournament when featuring the "wearing o' the green." The Fighting Irish also have broken out their alternate home whites with green trim for early-round games the past five seasons, posting a 7-1 (.875) record in those uniforms (2008 - a 75-62 win over SMU in West Lafayette, Ind.; 2009 - a 79-71 home loss to Minnesota; 2010 - an 86-58 home win over Cleveland State and 84-66 home win over Vermont; 2011 - a 67-54 win at Utah and 77-64 win over Temple in Salt Lake City; 2012 - a 74-43 win at home over Liberty and 73-62 home win over California), the first time they have been worn in NCAA tournament play.
Irish jig -- this unique pre-game ritual has become one of the widely-recognized traditions of Notre Dame women's basketball. Just prior to the introduction of the starting lineups, the Fighting Irish players will circle up in the lane with a basketball at their feet. As the Notre Dame pep band plays, the team will perform the Irish Jig (a popular step with Notre Dame fans, especially the student body) with the ball bouncing around in the midst of their dance. This tradition is believed to have started during the 1999-2000 season, but picked up steam during Notre Dame's 2000-01 national championship run and has been part of the Fighting Irish pre-game ritual ever since.
And finally, The Lime Green Shirts -- The ever-present lime green t-shirts you might see many Notre Dame fans wearing around Raleigh this week are given out annually to Fighting Irish women's basketball season ticket holders, a group affectionately known as the "Spirit Patrol". Created by coordinator of basketball operations Stephanie Menio, the shirts are based on one of head coach Muffet McGraw's favorite colors, which she sported on the sidelines during the 2001 national championship game win over Purdue.
A Few Statistical Notes ...
Notre Dame ranks among the top 15 in the nation in four NCAA defensive statistical categories -- steals (third at 13.1 spg.), turnover margin (fifth at +6.74), scoring defense (eighth at 52.1 ppg.) and rebound margin (12th at +9.0 rpg.).
The Fighting Irish have held 26 opponents to 60 points or fewer, with a school-record 18 failing to score more than 50 points against Notre Dame -- last year's Fighting Irish squad had 14 games in which it allowed 50 points or fewer.
Notre Dame has been in the taking mood this year, forcing its opponents into at least 20 turnovers in 21 games thus far, with Fighting Irish foes averaging 22.8 giveaways per game, and Notre Dame chalking up a +6.74 turnover margin that is fifth-best in the nation (as of Thursday).
The Lady Irish come into Sunday's game ranked third in the nation in steals with 13.1 thefts per game. The Fighting Irish also have recorded double-digit steals in 26 games this season, including three contests with 20-plus steals.
In the past two years (74 games), the Fighting Irish have had eight 23-steal games, with five outings of at least 25 thefts, and they have earned the last two BIG EAST steals crowns with 11.8 spg. (2010-11) and 11.4 spg. (2011-12) during regular-season league play.
The Lady Irish have 10 different players with double-digit steals this season (including three with at least 70 thefts for the second consecutive year), led by junior guard Skylar Diggins, who is averaging a BIG EAST-best 2.6 steals per game, and fifth-year senior guard/tri-captain Brittany Mallory, who is tied for seventh at 2.1 spg.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Fighting Irish are fourth in the nation (second in the BIG EAST) at 18.0 assists per game, including a season-high 33 assists against Pittsburgh on Jan. 17 (one of 14 games with 20-or-more assists this year, including seven with 25 assists).
Individually, junior guard Skylar Diggins is 16th in the nation in assists (BIG EAST-best 5.7 apg.) and 15th in the country with a 2.12 assist/turnover ratio (also tops in the conference).
What's more, Notre Dame has assisted on 62.8 percent of its field goals this season (630 of 1,003), compared to last year when the Fighting Irish registered assists on 60.9 percent of their baskets (669 of 1,099), with 16 games of at least 20 assists.
The Notre Dame Women's Basketball team has benefited from an experienced lineup this season, using the same starting five (guards Skylar Diggins, Brittany Mallory, Kayla McBride and Natalie Novosel, and forward Devereaux Peters) for all but three games this year (Dec. 30 at Mercer, when senior guard and Atlanta-area native Fraderica Miller earned the nod in her homecoming game; Jan. 7 vs. No. 2 Connecticut; Feb. 25 vs. USF, when Miller again started for Senior Day).
Collectively, the current Notre Dame lineup has started 369 games in their careers (Diggins-103, Novosel-78, Peters-77, Mallory-75, McBride-36). That total also impressively includes 37 NCAA Championship starts between the group (Diggins-11, Mallory-8, Novosel-8, Peters-8, McBride-2).
The Lady Irish have also made steady improvement on the glass during the 2011-2012 season. In their last 29 games, the Fighting Irish are averaging 41.6 rebounds a night, with an average +10.9 rpg. margin. Furthermore, Notre Dame has grabbed at least 40 rebounds 21 times in the past 29 games after not reaching that mark once in its opening six contests.
The Lady Irish's improvements on the glass have never been more apparent than in the first two rounds of this year's NCAA Championship, when the Fighting Irish faced two of the nation's top three teams (in terms of rebounding margin). Liberty came into its first-round matchup with Notre Dame owning a national-best +16.4 rpg. margin, but the Fighting Irish posted a 38-29 edge on the boards. Two days later, Cal had the country's No. 3 rebounding margin figure (+13.1 rpg.), but the Fighting Irish again won the battle on the glass by a 40-35 count. In both cases, it was just the second time all season the Lady Flames and Golden Bears had not finished on the positive side of the rebounding ledger.
According to Thursday's NCAA statistics report, Notre Dame ranks 12th in the country in rebounding margin (+9.0 rpg.) this year.
Peeking ahead to the next game ... NCAA Regional Final
Should Notre Dame defeat St. Bonaventure in Sunday's NCAA Raleigh Regional semifinals, the Fighting Irish would advance to the Raleigh Regional final at 9 p.m. (ET) Tuesday against either second-seeded Maryland or third-seeded Texas A&M at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. -- ESPN will televise the game live to a national cable audience.
Notre Dame is 1-4 all-time against Maryland, last facing the Terrapins on Nov. 16, 2007 (a 75-59 UM victory in the Preseason WNIT semifinals at the Comcast Center in College Park, Md.).
The Fighting Irish are 0-2 all-time against Texas A&M, including a 76-70 loss to the Aggies in last year's NCAA national championship game (April 5, 2011, at Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis).
Good luck ladies ... and GO IRISH!!!!!!!
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