WBB: Guards On Display In Notre Dame's First NCAA Match-Up
By Jeff Linder, Reporter
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Notre Dame has the best point guard in the country.
Tennessee-Martin has an uncommon scoring tandem.
The difference, in the eyes of UTM coach Kevin McMillan, lies in the paint.
“They have an inside game and we don’t,” McMillan said as the 16th-seeded Skyhawks (19-14) prepared to meet top-seeded, No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (31-1) in a first-round NCAA women’s basketball game Sunday.
Tipoff is 4 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
Notre Dame has been to the national championship game each of the last two seasons and is a heavy favorite to get through two games at Carver and advance to next week’s regional at Norfolk, Va.
The Fighting Irish have won 26 straight games, including three against Big East rival Connecticut.
They’ve got Skylar Diggins, an All-American who is one of six players since 2000 to reach a statistical headshaker — 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in a career.
“Probably the assists (is what I’m most proud of),” Diggins said. “It is great to create for people. To get 500 assists, and 500 made baskets, you’ve got to credit the teammates for that.”
Tennessee-Martin counters with the duo of juniors Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome. Both average more than 22 points per game, and both have scored more than 2,000 points in their career.
For means of reference, only one Iowa player has done that in her career.
“(They are) two of the best guards in the country,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “They can shoot the three, they can put it on the floor, they can attack the basket. Their assist-to-turnover ratio is good. They’re as good a guards as we’ve seen all year long, and it’s going to be a challenge for us trying to contain them.”
Butler said, “We’re just very compatible on the court.”
Tennessee-Martin already has played two of the tournament’s No. 1 seeds, falling to Baylor (82-67) and Stanford (92-68) in the regular season.
“This is why we scheduled the big teams, to prepare us for the end of the season.” Butler said.
Diggins said, “They’re in the tournament for a reason.”
UTM has the guards to compete with an elite team, but will struggle to find an answer for Notre Dame’s Natalie Achonwa inside. Achonwa averages 13.8 points per game.
“Their big kids a blue-collar kids who do a lot of grunt work,” said McMillan, who said his team’s fate will be determined somewhat on how the game is called.
“If the officials blow the whistles, it will be a different game than if they don’t,” he said. “We traditionally get to the free throw line a lot. If we only shoot 10 free throws, it’s going to be ugly.”
Only once in the history of the NCAA women’s tournament has a No. 16 seed knocked off a No. 1 (Harvard did it to Stanford in 1998). McGraw said the trend of first-round upsets in the men’s tournament has her team on alert.
“It makes you realize it can happen to you,” she said. “It puts you on guard a little more.”
TENNESSEE-MARTIN (19-14) vs. No. 2 NOTRE DAME (31-1)
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Tipoff: 4 p.m. Sunday
How UTM qualified: Earned an automatic berth by winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Brings an eight-game win streak to Iowa City. UTM coach: Kevin McMillan (4th year at UTM, 74-53). Key UTM players: G Jasmine Newsome (5-6, jr., 22.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg), G Heather Butler (5-5, jr., 22.0m 3.8 rpg, 4.1 apg), F Rickiesha Bryant (6-3, sr., 9.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, .643 FG%).
How Notre Dame qualified: Earned an automatic berth by winning the Big East Conference tournament, defeating No. 3 Connecticut in the final, its third win over the Huskies this season. Irish have won 26 straight. Notre Dame coach: Muffet McGraw (26th year at Notre Dame, 621-216; 31st year overall, 710-257). Key Notre Dame players: G Skylar Diggins (5-9, sr., 17.0 ppg, 5.9 apg, 3.1 spg, .820 FT%), G Kayla McBride (5-11, jr., 15.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .915 FT%), F Natalie Achonwa (6-3, jr., 13.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, .531 FG%).
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