INDIANAPOLIS – Texas A&M's Danielle Adams is not the person she was two years ago, much to her delight.
For starters, there's not as much of her.
Adams tipped the scales at 280 pounds when she transferred to A&M from a Missouri junior college in 2009. She has since slimmed down to around 230 and as the weight fell off, her production and efficiency shot up.
She can play longer and harder, and that's critical at A&M, especially the playing harder part. Coach Gary Blair's defense-first system relies on players going all out from beginning to end.
"It's helped me tremendously," said Adams, who this season became a first-team All-American, the first in Aggies' history. "Since day one, Jen Jones, our strength and conditioning coach, has been working with me. I've been making better choices on my food selections and my teammates have been there to push me every day in practice."
Adams' increased stamina is reflected in her numbers. Last season, when she was the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year, she averaged 23.4 minutes a game. This season, that number has jumped to 30.4. She played the full 40 minutes in a victory at Iowa State and has logged at least 35 minutes in 12 other games.
"I feel real good right now," Adams said. "I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been in. I'm proud of it and want to keep working at it and just keep getting my weight down if I can."
Adams put in 32 minutes in A&M's 63-62 victory over Stanford in Sunday night's national semifinals and the Aggies will need her on the floor as much as possible when they face Notre Dame in the championship game Tuesday night.
Fatigue? Adams doesn't even want to think about that word, though it's a concern for everyone, from the shortest, slimmest guard to the tallest, bulkiest post player.
It will be the 38th game this season for A&M and the 39th for Notre Dame and comes at the end of a grueling stretch of tournament games, each one carrying higher stakes than the one before. The grind can challenge even the best-conditioned players.
"I'm going to rely on my adrenaline to take me through this game," A&M guard Sydney Carter said. "There's so much on the line with this last game. It's going to be my last game with our seniors. I definitely want to go out with a bang and finish it all.
"I think that with so much being on the line, I don't think tired is going to be an issue."
It won't be an issue for Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters, either. At least, she hopes it won't.
"It's either you win or you go home, so you can't really think about that too much," Peters said. "It's if you want to play or you don't. If you're tired and you don't want to be there, it's a whole different story. We all want to be here. We're all excited for it."
But making the Final Four has brought her a new legion of fans. The sophomore guard gained some 20,000 followers Sunday night after she led the Irish to a 72-63 victory over Connecticut and a trip to the championship game.
Diggins was actually a trending topic on Twitter on Sunday. It definitely helped that rapper Lil Wayne tweeted about her and the Irish to his 1.6 million followers.
"He tweeted me and I was like, wow. He didn't just say Skylar Diggins, he said the Fighting Irish and that's huge," she said.
Diggins is careful about her own tweets.
"I wouldn't say anything that my mother wouldn't be proud of," Diggins said. "She stalks me, never mentions it, but she's on there. Even if she wasn't, you know that you're representing the University of Notre Dame and it's so much bigger then myself and what I represent."
SCHAEFER FOR THE DEFENSE: Texas A&M coach Gary Blair has borrowed a page from the football coaching handbook: He has his own defensive coordinator.
Assistant coach Vic Schaefer has worked 14 seasons with Blair at Arkansas and A&M, and has great freedom in developing the Aggies' defensive schemes and drills. He's known as the team's secretary of defense, not to be confused with Robert Gates, the former A&M president who is President Obama's secretary of defense.
"I just think he understands," Schaefer said of Blair. "I look at all the film on our opponents. He just looks at our film and worries about our team. He knows I have a great understanding with what's going on with the other coaches."
Guard Sydney Colson said Schaefer sets the tone for the Aggies' aggressiveness on the defensive end with his intensity in practice — and endless drills.
"Since the beginning of the season, we always start out with this certain drill in the defensive portion of practice that we all dread," Colson said. "It's the most tiring thing and then you've still got to do like 50 minutes of defense after it.
"But going through all those drills that we hate doing has really prepared us for where we're at right now."
The most dreaded is the zigzag drill. In that drill, a defender must hound a dribbler up the court and try to constantly force her to change direction.
"Our post players, they hate it," Colson said. "They never want to be the first in line. It's three minutes on the clock when we start this drill, so they never want to be first. They want to go last because they're like, 'When will I ever do this?'"
Well, 6-foot-1 forward Adaora Elonu did it late in the Stanford game, forcing 6-3 Mikaela Ruef to change directions several times as she tried to bring the ball up the court.
"Adaora has not been our best in practice at doing that and we carp on her every day," Schaefer said. "When our kids over there are seeing Adaora Elonu turn the ball three or four or five times in the backcourt, they're fired up. That's part of what gets us going and gets them excited in that situation."
MELLOW MUFFET: Notre Dame's veteran players have seen a mellowing in coach Muffet McGraw.
Oh, she's still intense and she'll get on them when they need prodding. But McGraw herself concedes she's lightened up and is more patient with this team, which has reached the national championship game despite losing four starters from last season.
"We talk to a couple of the players here from years ago and they're like, 'She's so much easier on y'all than she was on us,'" guard Skylar Diggins said. "And I'm like, 'Well, yeah.'
"But she's had a lot of patience with us. Obviously we're a young team and I think with her being patient with us and talking to us like she does ... we're just able to put together an awesome year."
McGraw said she's more relaxed because the team has made her that way. She doesn't need to come up with many pep talks because senior Becca Bruszewski sees to that.
"I never have to worry about if we're gong to show up," McGraw said. "And I think that really makes it more fun. I've really enjoyed coaching this team. I've enjoyed this journey we've been on."
DOS SKYLARS: Before she enrolled Texas A&M, Skylar Collins knew no one else with the same first name.
"I felt kind of special," she said.
Then, during a team dinner before a game against Texas Tech, the television was tuned to ESPN and the announcer mentioned Skylar Diggins.
"I turned around and was like, 'Who called my name?'" Collins said. "That was the first I ever heard about her because this was when she was being recruited. I didn't know anybody else even had that name. I think it's kind of cool."
Collins has said she'd like to meet the Notre Dame star and it could happen Tuesday night, though hardly in a friendly setting. Collins, a reserve guard, usually goes in to play defense, so there's a chance she'd guard Diggins. She won't be going out there just to shake her hand.
"I would definitely be out there trying to win," Collins said. "Maybe after the game, when it's all said and done, it would be nice to meet her."
FRIENDS FACE OFF: The best individual matchup in Tuesday night's game could be the Aggies' quick, feisty guard Sydney Carter against the Irish's smooth and dangerous Skylar Diggins.
They'll hardly be strangers. They roomed together at USA Basketball Trials, became close friends and, you guessed it, follow each other on Twitter.
"She is awesome on and off the court," Diggins said. "It is going to be fun playing against her. It's fun playing against people that you know because you know they are going to challenge you."
Diggins presents an even greater challenge for most opponents because she's left-handed and there are few left-handers playing point guard. But one is Baylor freshman Odyssey Sims, a player the Aggies faced four times this season.
"That may help us out a little bit because guarding a left-handed guard is unorthodox in our game," Aggies guard Sydney Colson said.
SHE'S TOUGH: Notre Dame's Brittany Mallory thrives on sticking her nose wherever the basketball might be and she's got the bruises and scratches to prove it.
Mallory is toughness personified for the Irish and that's saying something on a team that has a player nicknamed Nasty (Natalie Novosel) and another called Bruiser (Becca Bruszewski).
If you see a Notre Dame player sprawled on the floor, chances are it's Mallory.
"Coach always said I had a hard nose for the ball," Mallory said. "I just go in and I get hit probably five times every game. Sometimes I fall to the ground, sometimes I don't. I've just got to keep fighting. I'm not going to sit out in a lot of things."
Mallory developed that toughness as a youngster. She and her brother, Bobby, who's 3 years older, used to go 1-on-1 at a hoop on the cul-de-sac where the family lives in Baltimore.
"This one specific time, I remember I was about to win," she said. "I beat him on the dribble and he just pushed me and my face hit the metal bar. So I ran inside and said, 'Daddy, he pushed me!' And he goes, 'Well, you can either cry about it or play through it.' That was my dad's saying.
"I was like, fine. I wiped my face and I threw the ball back to my brother and said, 'Let's finish this game.'"
Mallory also played lacrosse in high school and that's no game for the timid.
"Getting hit with a metal pole in your hand, that doesn't feel too good," she said. "Lacrosse definitely is a physical sport."
Basketball is, too, at least the way Mallory and her teammates play it.
"Throughout the season, you don't realize after a game where you got hit or scratched until the next day and you wake up and there's marks all down your arms," she said. "Nail marks. You know girls. We have nails. It's not like we're purposely trying to scratch each other. You wake up and just have lines all over you.
"It's almost like a reward. It shows how much you battled and how intense you were during the game."
BITTERSWEET DAY: One of the greatest honors of Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer's career came after one of her more disappointing days.
VanDerveer was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame on Monday as part of the group that included Chris Mullin, Dennis Rodman, Artis Gilmore, Tex Winter and Teresa Edwards. VanDerveer coached Edwards on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
The announcement was made just 14 hours after her team lost to Texas A&M 63-62 at the Final Four, denying the Cardinal a trip to the championship game.
"It's the ultimate compliment to a coach or basketball player," VanDerveer said. "I'm humbled and honored. You should be really excited about it, but I wish it hadn't come on this day. I'm not feeling great about myself or how we played. I keep going back and thinking about all the things I could have done or should have done."
A&M scored the winning basket with just 3.3 seconds left.
ONE MOORE NOTE: With her 36 points in Connecticut's loss to Notre Dame on Sunday night, Maya Moore just missed becoming the career scoring leader in NCAA tournament play.
Moore scored 476 points in 22 tournament games with the Huskies. Former Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw is the leader with 479.
In an interesting twist, Moore's next official game could come in the same place she played her last collegiate game, Conseco Fieldhouse. Moore is expected to go to the Minnesota Lynx as the first pick in next Monday's WNBA draft. The Lynx open their season against the Indiana Fever at Conseco Fieldhouse.