March 18, 2012 in Sports

Irish women enter tourney with high hopes

Rick Gano Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, right, has stepped up her game to average 17 points per contest.
(Full-size photo)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Skylar Diggins was raring to go after a couple of days off. Notre Dame’s star point guard, like the rest of her teammates, had been waiting for the NCAA tournament to come around since they were beaten in the finals last season.

After 30 wins, a regular-season Big East title and a disappointing loss in the conference tournament finals, the Irish have a No. 1 seed and they’re ready for what’s ahead. Their NCAA trek starts today at home against Liberty in the Raleigh (N.C.) region.

“We were able to rest our bodies and recover,” Diggins said. “Now, everybody is so anxious to get back on the court that that is going to play into it. We’re fine. We’re prepared.”

The Irish won their way into the NCAA championship game a year ago by beating Tennessee and UConn back to back with Diggins leading the way, averaging 19.3 points and nearly six assists in six tourney games. Then came a six-point loss to Texas A&M in the finals, a defeat that’s been a motivating point all season.

Coach Muffet McGraw is convinced Diggins is even better than a year ago, studying film and expanding her game. She’s averaged 17 points a game this season.

“She really managed the game better this year. Last year, she did a really good job and in the NCAA tournament, she really stepped forward,” McGraw said.

“She knows when to pass and when to shoot. She is comfortable passing, and she isn’t trying too hard to score or to make a pass. She takes what the defense gives her.

“… Her ability to see the floor and go full speed with the ball makes us a dangerous team in transition.”

During practice sessions since losing to UConn in the tournament finals March 6, the Irish have worked hard on rebounding, one of Liberty’s strengths.

Liberty (24-8), the Big South champion, outrebounded opponents by an average of 16.4. And 6-3 center Avery Warley averaged 11.6 boards and 13.1 points per game. Devon Brown led the Flames with a 16.9 point average. Liberty must cut down on its turnovers – about 20 per game – and be able to handle Notre Dame’s defense led by Diggins.

“It wasn’t a shock. We kind of had an idea that we would be playing them, ‘’ Brown said of facing the Irish. … “It’s just another game for us.”

The winner will meet either No. 8 Iowa (19-11) or No. 9 California (24-9) on Tuesday, also at the Purcell Pavilion, where Notre Dame was 15-1 this season.

“It’s out of our control,” Liberty coach Carey Green said of Notre Dame’s home-court advantage.

“In the dynamics of women’s basketball, just from a financial economic perspective, women’s basketball is doing what they have to do right now. In the future, as it continues to grow, the women’s tournament will probably venture away from these home court advantages. It is what it is.”

The Irish’s three losses were at Baylor, at home against West Virginia and then in the tournament championship to UConn, a team they also beat twice.

“I think there was a little bit of a relief when the regular season was over and we got the No. 1 seed,” McGraw said.

“It was incredibly difficult to be expected to win every game we were going into and to handle it as well as we did and to never be really able to celebrate it because there was something more coming. … Now it is back to zero.”

Three of Cal’s nine losses were to No. 2 Stanford, including one in the finals of the Pac-12 tourney.

Cal’s also been especially tough on the boards and led by 6-2 Gennifer Brandon, 6-3 Reshanda Gray and 6-3 Talia Caldwell had an average rebound margin of 13.2 over its opponents this season.

No player on Cal’s current roster has been to the NCAA tournament before.

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