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Robert Morris has sights on top-seeded Irish

03/22/2014, 1:06am EDT
By RYAN AUTULLO BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Robert Morris teammates Judith Sole, left, and Artemis Spanou battle for a rebound during the team’s practice on Friday. Spanou leads the 16th-seeded Colonials with 19.8 points per game. Only one 16 seed has knocked off a No. 1 seed in the NCAA women’s to

As Mercer crashed the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Friday with a stunning upset of third-seed Duke, a women’s team some 600 miles away lounged on couches glued to a TV.

Unbeaten Notre Dame was impressed.

This is March Madness, where the unexpected becomes commonplace and obscure programs such as Mercer can play a virtual road game in Raleigh and upend one of the storied programs in the game.

“Every team’s fighting for a chance to prove others wrong,” Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd said, relaxing in a locker room at University of Toledo’s Savage Arena.

Robert Morris hopes to be Mercer-ish today.

PHOTO GALLERY: Robert Morris practice

PHOTO GALLERY: Notre Dame practice

The 16th-seed Colonials caught an unenviable first-round draw in Notre Dame, a remarkably talented team averaging 25-point wins throughout an unbeaten season.

This David vs. Goliath matchup will unfold today at 1:30 p.m.

“The Mercer win totally gives us confidence seeing what a smaller team can do,” RMU guard Ashley Ravelli said. “We have been practicing all this week without fear, and I’m guessing [Mercer] did the same thing.”

Only once, in 2006, has a No. 16 seed beaten a No. 1 with Harvard pulling off the unthinkable over Stanford.

Colonials coach Sal Buscaglia, whose team is playing in the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons, called Notre Dame “not a great team but an elite team” and hinted the gap between the haves and the have nots is wider than in the men’s game.

The Fighting Irish rolled through their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference with double-digit victories in 30 of 32 games.

During a 10-day period ending with the ACC title game, ND crushed four top-15 teams by the following point totals — 25, 24, 35, and 16.

“It’s going to be a challenge, for sure,” said RMU forward Artemis Spanous, whose 19.8 points are most of either team.

Second-ranked Notre Dame matches Connecticut for the nation’s longest win streak with 49. The rivals avoided each other other in the regular season — ND coach Muffet McGraw said Connecticut wouldn’t or couldn’t make a meeting happen — and are everyone’s picks to meet in the title game April 8 in Nashville.

To advance to their third final in four years, the Irish will lean on a backcourt consisting of the ACC player of the year and her teammate who might be even better.

Loyd, a 5-foot-10 sophomore averaging a team-high 18.5 points, was the top senior shooting guard in the country two years ago and has not disappointed.

The national freshman of the year in 2012-13 has enhanced her game as an encore, helping the Irish offset the graduation of Skylar Diggins, who was widely regarded as the nation’s top player last year. Loyd, who has scored in double figures in every game, contributes 6.2 rebounds.

ACC player of the year Kayla McBride (17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds) and 6-3 forward Natalie Achonwa (14.1, 7.4) pose further issues for the Colonials.

“Notre Dame is fun to watch,” Buscaglia said. “But not fun to watch when you’re going to play them.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.

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