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No. 1 seed Irish to play at UT

03/17/2014, 10:48pm EDT
By BLADE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

UConn, ND, Tennessee, South Carolina top regional picks

No. 1 seed Irish to play at UT

Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio.

All season there has been a buzz around women's basketball about Connecticut and Notre Dame.

Now the stage is set for the former Big East rivals to meet in an historic national championship game.

The teams enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten — only the second time that's ever happened. They are on a collision course to meet in the national championship game. If they do both get to Nashville, the Irish will be all that stands between Geno Auriemma and a record ninth NCAA championship, breaking a tie with Tennessee.

"We really haven't talked, I bet hardly at all, about this national championship or what number it is or any of that," Auriemma said.

For the second time in three seasons northwest Ohio will host an undefeated top seed.

Notre Dame will play in the regional at the University of Toledo’s Savage Arena. The Fighting Irish will face 16th-seed Robert Morris at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The first game at 11 a.m. will between eighth-seeded Vanderbilt and No. 9 Arizona State.

Two seasons ago Bowling Green State University's Stroh Center hosted eventual national champion Baylor in its regional.

The Irish (32-0) of coach Muffet McGraw were 16-0 in their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference and won the league’s postseason tournament.

Robert Morris (21-11) won the Northeast Conference regular-season title with a 14-4 mark. The Colonials of coach Sal Buscaglia then won the NEC tournament title for the school’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2008.

Vanderbilt (18-12), which was considered a “bubble” team by many experts, earned its 15th consecutive NCAA tournament bid. The Commodores of coach Melanie Balcomb were part of a five-way tie for sixth in the Southeastern Conference with a 7-9 mark and lost nine of their last 11 games.

Arizona State (22-9) earned their 12th appearance in the NCAA tournament, but just its second since 2008-09. The Sun Devils of coach Charli Turner Thorne tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with an 11-7 record and were upset by eventual champ USC in the quarterfinals of the league tournament.

Despite being the 13th women's team to go unbeaten during the regular season, the Irish have felt almost unappreciated with most of the talk centered on the Huskies. McGraw doesn't seem to mind.

"I like it because we can get a chip on our shoulder and head into the tournament with a bit of chip," she said.

Even though UConn and Notre Dame didn't play this season, the two teams know plenty about each other having met 12 times over the previous three seasons. Notre Dame isn't intimidated by Connecticut; the Irish have won seven of the past nine meetings with the Huskies.

"It was very unusual to go through a whole season without playing them, we're so used to it, three times every year," McGraw said. "We've gotten pretty good at beating them the last couple of years."

Before the potential meeting of unbeatens, the two might have to go through SEC powers Tennessee and South Carolina, who also earned No. 1 seeds. While it's the 22nd time that the Lady Vols have earned a top spot, it's the first for the Gamecocks. The Huskies, Lady Vols and Gamecocks all could have to play on an opponent's home court with a trip to Nashville on the line. Stanford, Notre Dame, Louisville and Nebraska, who are all hosting regionals, were a combined 52-3 at home this season.

The Lady Vols, who won the SEC tournament, are the top seed in the Louisville Regional and would also like nothing more than to break the tie with Connecticut and win their ninth NCAA title.

Tennessee was involved in the only other meeting between unbeatens. The Lady Vols routed Liberty in the opener of the 1998 tournament when both were undefeated.

South Carolina doesn't have an easy road to the Final Four. The Gamecocks could face an inspired young North Carolina team in the regional semifinals before potentially playing host Stanford.

The Tar Heels and their stellar freshman class, led by Diamond Deshields, beat the Gamecocks in December. The Tar Heels also could have coach Sylvia Hatchell back on the sidelines at that point. The Hall of Famer battled leukemia during the regular season.

While Hatchell's status is unknown for the tournament, Baylor will be missing coach Kim Mulkey for the first game. She is suspended for the first round game against Western Kentucky for comments she made last season after losing to Louisville in the regional semifinals.

Connecticut could have to beat host Nebraska in the regional semifinals if both teams make it that far. The Huskies have made it to the Final Four in a record six straight seasons.

Tennessee will be making its 33rd straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, getting into the field ever year. Five teams will be making their first trip — Akron, North Dakota, South Dakota, Winthrop and Wright State.

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