Dishin on the Elite Eight: Final Four-bound Notre Dame impressive in rout of Maryland

Notre Dame is set for a rematch with Connecticut in the Final Four.

From the time the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced, many people pointed to the Raleigh region and its top two seeds, Notre Dame and Maryland as potentially the best matchup not in Denver, and the best opportunity for a seed other than number one to advance. Unfortunately, reality did not match anticipation, with the Irish easily advancing to Denver by an 80-49 margin.

Despite their lofty rankings, both teams had moments of inconsistency in getting to the Elite Eight, with Notre Dame struggling against California and Maryland having to come back from a deficit to knock off Texas A&M.

Maryland’s strong post play seemed a tough match up for Notre Dame’s four guard alignment. On the other hand, could Maryland defend Notre Dame’s guard play and motion on offense? Star power was there in abundance with each team having a first team AP All-American in Alyssa Thomas of Maryland and Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame. Maryland had the deeper bench, but Notre Dame had two additional honorable mention All-Americans in Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel.

The game opened just as you would hope, like two heavyweight fighters exchanging blows, and how you would expect them. By the eleven minute media break and the score tied at 12, the big four of Notre Dame’s starters had scored, and Thomas and frontcourt mate Alicia DeVaughn had ten of the Terps twelve.

The Irish came out of the timeout much more aggressive in their pursuit of missed shots on both ends, holding Maryland to one shot on several possessions, while racking up a few second chance points themselves. Diggins was looking for her shot, and Natalie Achonwa was a strong presence as they went with both Peters and Achonwa in a more conventional two post alignment for several minutes. McBride knocked in her second three pointer of the half, and the Irish led by ten.

Notre Dame packed the lane against Maryland defensively, double and triple teaming the ball every time it went inside, daring Maryland to make three point shots, or at a minimum, jump shots. Maryland continually missed shots and the Irish rebounded what seemed like every miss, on both ends.

McBride drove the lane between the Maryland defenders for her ninth and tenth points of the half, and the Irish led 32-17 with four minutes to go at the half. Thomas was on the bench with two fouls, and the Irish had ten more rebounds than the Terps, a big surprise to those expecting Maryland’s front line domination.

They closed the half on another run, opening up a 40-21 lead. Maryland was standing around on offense, waiting for Thomas and their frontline to do something with the ball instead of just letting it flow, unforced. Notre Dame played like the team they are, experienced, determined, efficient. With an eye on a second consecutive trip to the final four, Diggins had thirteen points, three rebounds, three assists, and two steals in the half, and Peters and Achonwa controlled the boards, pulling down five and six each, respectively.

The optimist said look what Maryland came back from against Texas A&M, but the realist had to look at the way the half was played and wonder how Maryland could come back against a team as strong as Notre Dame.

The second half began as the first half ended, with Diggins leading the break for Notre Dame, and Maryland trying to force it inside to Thomas and their frontcourt players. When Novosel popped open in the corner for a Diggins assist, it was the Irish up 50-26 with seventeen minutes to go.

Notre Dame Coach Muffett McGraw game planned and prepared the Irish for this game beautifully. Every time Thomas touched the ball in the paint, at least two or three people surrounded her in a good, solid trap. They did not commit silly fouls either, they held their position, arms high in the air, making Maryland work to get off a shot or complete the pass out to the perimeter.

Diggins for her part, played with an intensity and fire that had been lacking in recent games. While that sounds negative, it really is not belittling her game, As good as she is, she has let the game dictate her play for a lot of the season, only trying to impose her will when it was necessary, while being content to involve her teammates and let them shine. In this game, Diggins was not going to take a backseat, and she was in complete control, working toward a possible triple-double as the second half progressed. With ten minutes to go, the lead had ballooned to 28 for the Irish, and by the seven minute mark it was up to 32. Diggins at that point had seven rebounds, eight assists and even five steals to add to her 22 points.

With 2:32 to go, she accomplished what Ogwumike, Griner and the rest could not in this tournament, a triple-double. She departed twenty seconds later into a huge hug by mentor assistant coach Niele Ivey, especially appropriate when you consider Ivey was the point guard on the 2001 Notre Dame team that was McGraw’s last national champion.

The final score was Notre Dame 80, Maryland 49. Impressive is the best word I can think of to describe it. Diggins, Achonwa, McBride, and Novosel all finished with fourteen or more points. Thomas led Maryland with 17.

For Brenda Frese’s Terps, this was a disappointing conclusion to a tremendous season. They exceeded expectations, winning the ACC championship and Thomas being first team All-American. They lose a few pieces to graduation, but Thomas, Lauren Mincy, and most of the crucial pieces will be back. Frese is also to be commended for doing all this while dealing with her son’s health issues, and fighting the social and political crusades relating to health care she has pursued.

Remember, this is the game many of the pundits of ESPN and elsewhere had predicted would be the end of the line for the Irish. Instead, it was the most impressive and dominant performance of any of the number one seeds in the Elite Eight. Many thought their blowout of Saint Bonaventure was more a comment on possible overseeding of the Bonnies than the game of the Irish, but against an impressive Maryland team, Notre Dame proved they are worthy of high praise, and must be considered a legitimate candidate to move on to the championship game in Denver.

There will be a fourth meeting between the Irish and Connecticut. The Big East is guaranteed a place in the championship game. There is a lot of 2011 feeling, with Connecticut winning a hard fought Big East championship game, leading up to this return match up. McGraw and Auriemma remember very well the outcome in 2011. McGraw will try to duplicate it, while Auriemma will seek to have history not repeat itself.

We shall see on Sunday.

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