Published March 21, 2014
TOLEDO, Ohio – After three straight trips to the Final Four — two of which ended one win short of a national title — Notre Dame's three senior starters are down to their last chance.
If there's any extra pressure this time around, the Fighting Irish are embracing it.
"I think it makes it that much more fun to know that this is kind of our last shot," forward Natalie Achonwa said. "I wouldn't say pressure, but I would say excitement — that we have the opportunity to do something special."
Notre Dame has already accomplished something rare this season, bringing an undefeated record into the NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Irish will start what they hope will be a lengthy run Saturday against 16th-seeded Robert Morris. The other game in Toledo pits eighth-seeded Vanderbilt against ninth-seeded Arizona State.
Notre Dame has one national title, in 2001, and the Irish have come agonizingly close to adding another recently. They lost in the title game in 2011 and 2012, and last year they were knocked out in the semifinals by Connecticut.
The Irish (32-0) and UConn are both unbeaten this year, so both teams will have to avoid getting too immersed in talk of a potential matchup in the championship game.
"We stay focused by not answering questions about the noise and distractions surrounding this whole thing," coach Muffet McGraw said. "We did it all season long without looking ahead, and now it's a six-game season and we have to do it again."
Here are five things to watch in Toledo this weekend:
EARLY RISING? Arizona State (22-9) had to travel three time zones to the east for its first-round game, and the Sun Devils will play at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Their shootaround slot before the game is scheduled for 5:30 a.m. — or 2:30 back home.
Needless to say, they won't be taking advantage of that opportunity, opting instead for a slightly different pregame routine that is nonetheless familiar.
"In Cancun, we had three noon games, which was 11 a.m. Arizona time," coach Charli Turner Thorne said, referring to an event Arizona State played in late in November. "We just had walk-through for 30 minutes."
SECOND CHANCE: Vanderbilt (18-12) has lost four in a row and nine of 11 — but the Commodores made the NCAA tournament for a 15th straight year.
"It's a fresh start and we worked very hard to get here," coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We had a lot of time off, and it kills the momentum either way. We're really looking forward to playing our best basketball here in March."
Vandy has won at least one NCAA tournament game in 10 of the last 11 seasons.
GREEK SENSATION: Robert Morris (21-11) is led by forward Artemis Spanou, who became the third player in Northeast Conference history to earn player of the year honors in back-to-back seasons. She's also one of seven Division I players to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 blocks.
Spanou is from Rhodes, Greece, and she's one of several international players for the Colonials.
Anna Niki Stamolamprou is also from Greece, and Ashley Ravelli is from Italy. Rebeca Navarro and Judith Sole are from Spain, Lou Mataly is from France and Jolie Olingende is from Congo.
You might think coach Sal Buscaglia is racking up airline miles with all these recruits from overseas, but he actually leaves that responsibility to his son, associate head coach Charlie Buscaglia.
"He does all the traveling," Sal Buscaglia said. "I've never been over to Europe in my life."
BRIGHT FUTURE: Although Notre Dame has plenty of experience, the team's leading scorer is sophomore guard Jewell Loyd, who was the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Loyd is averaging 18.5 points per game and shooting 53 percent from the field — a sign that the Irish will probably keep right on winning after seniors Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker depart.
RECHARGED: Arizona State bounced back quickly from coach Charli Turner Thorne's one-season sabbatical.
Turner Thorne took a break from coaching for the 2011-12 season, saying she wanted to regain balance in her life. The Sun Devils won 20 games under interim coach Joseph Anders, but Turner Thorne was unable to recruit during her time off, and Arizona State was left with a young, inexperienced team that went 13-18 in her first season back.
Now, the Sun Devils are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since the season before Turner Thorne left.
"Being that long away from your program, there are certain disadvantages," Turner Thorne said. "But it was unbelievable in terms of professional development, and the clarity that I was able to get, in terms of taking the next step for our program."