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Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw can't stand the idea of having regionals at home sites. It doesn't make for a truly fair tournament, she says. She's right.
But the way the Irish have played this season, the fact that Notre Dame is hosting a regional is hardly the reason they are favored to go to the Women's Final Four again. Rather, it's that this Irish team -- despite the loss of Skylar Diggins -- is an undefeated powerhouse no matter where it is playing.
Admittedly, so is that other former Big East giant on the other side of the bracket. While UConn travels to Lincoln, Neb., for what appears a not-very-challenging regional, Notre Dame is home, where the Irish have lost just two games over the past three seasons.
One of those was to Baylor in December 2012, and the Lady Bears are among the visitors to Notre Dame this weekend. But can they, Oklahoma State or Kentucky keep Notre Dame from Nashville?
Here are three X factors for each matchup.
ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday
|Kayla McBride and Notre Dame are 34-0 this season.|
Big Mac: Notre Dame senior Kayla McBride -- who's averaging 17.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists -- is the basketball lover's basketball player. She always finds multiple ways to impact a game, and she's never afraid to take the big shot at the most crucial time. Admittedly, the Irish haven't been in a whole lot of close games this season, but if they face any from here on out, McBride will be ready for prime time.
Plus, she and fellow guard Jewell Loyd (18.4 PPG) do so much to make things easier for freshman point guard Lindsay Allen. They are always there to take some pressure off of her when she's in tough situations, and they've also helped Allen become a better decision-maker.
Peaks and valleys: While Notre Dame has been very steady this season, Oklahoma State has had a serious case of the ups and downs. Prior to the two consecutive victories in the NCAA tournament, the Cowgirls had alternated wins and losses since Jan. 22.
The key loss in that stretch came Jan. 26 at home against Baylor. Oklahoma State seemingly had that game won before a late 3-pointer by the Lady Bears sent it into overtime. The Cowgirls haven't defeated Baylor in senior guard Tiffany Bias' career, and that near miss really took a toll on Oklahoma State's psyche. But two wins in March Madness seem to have repaired that. Plus, the Cowgirls just got the boost of beating a good team (No. 4 seed Purdue) on its home court before facing Notre Dame at home. However, all of that is probably not enough to challenge Notre Dame.
Board dominance: The Irish average about 10 rebounds more per game than their opponents. The Cowgirls haven't been that dominant on the boards. And if they struggle shooting, the lack of second-chance opportunities could be very tough for Oklahoma State to overcome.
Pick: Notre Dame -- Mechelle Voepel
ESPN, noon ET Saturday
A repeat worth watching: Who could have possibly guessed that just 3½ months after playing what might have been the greatest women's basketball game, Kentucky and Baylor would be doing it all over again? That Dec. 6 meeting at the massive home of the Dallas Cowboys just kept getting better as it went along. And it did go on and on. Four overtimes later, Kentucky prevailed 133-130 in the highest-scoring game in Division I women's college basketball history. All the buildup to Saturday's regional semifinal rematch will rightly reference this early-season offensive slugfest between the Lady Bears and Wildcats.
|Odyssey Sims, who has scored 996 points in 35 games, and Nina Davis have been Baylor's one-two punch this season.|
Baylor's Odyssey Sims scored 47 points in 41 minutes and undoubtedly would have produced plenty more had she not fouled out in the first overtime. It was her statement game, announcing to the world that the Brittney Griner era at Baylor was officially over and this was now her team.
To ask for another epic is asking too much. Kentucky, in particular, cannot expect another 43-point performance from Jennifer O'Neill off the bench. However, that Friday night in Dallas illustrated how evenly matched these teams are. With the stakes much higher in this one, the intensity level should rise higher even if the point total doesn't.
That game tape has been dissected and then re-examined. The winner Saturday will likely be the team that learned the most from playing those 60 minutes.
Containing Odyssey: After that game in December, a relieved Matthew Mitchell acknowledged that his team had no answer for Sims. Kentucky's best defense that night was Sims' fifth foul.
Baylor's high pick-and-roll game allowed Sims to get free for drives into the lane all night. She was amazingly efficient in her massive point production, scoring 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting in 18 possessions in which the Lady Bears used Sims in the pick-and-roll. In all, those 47 points came on 33 shots, just four 3-point attempts, and a steady 12-of-15 from the foul line.
Saturday's game will largely come down to how Kentucky defends that very play because, while Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey will run some nuanced looks off the high ball-screen action, Baylor's attack remains built around Sims' ability to use the screen to get into the lane or free for a jump shot.
Mitchell has changed his overall defensive approach as this season has worn on. The Wildcats aren't necessarily the gambling, full-court pressure club they were in December and have been for a few years. A more conservative approach that better fits their personnel has helped Kentucky limit its two NCAA tournament foes, Wright State and Syracuse, to 22 percent and 33 percent shooting, respectively. That defensive improvement is a big reason why the Wildcats enter this game having won seven of their past eight, the only loss coming by one point to Tennessee in the SEC championship game.
In O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kastine Evans, Janee Thompson and Linnae Harper, the Wildcats have plenty of guards to run at Sims, who is just four points away from becoming the second player in women's NCAA Division I history to score 1,000 points in a season, joining Southwest Missouri State legend Jackie Stiles.
Inside the inside story: If Kentucky is to get to its third straight Elite Eight and fourth in five years, it might have to lean heavily on its veteran frontcourt of DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- especially since Sims is so hard to contain. Both have been fairly productive during the Wildcats' late-season resurgence, with Stallworth doing the more scoring of the two. Equally important, just as in the backcourt, is how well Kentucky's frontcourt performs on defense.
That's because the most productive forward in this game is Baylor's Nina Davis. The 5-foot-11 freshman has been Sims' running mate all season. Her 19.8 points and eight rebounds per game in the postseason, which includes a run to a Big 12 tournament title, is an increase from her regular-season averages of 15 points and nine rebounds. Davis, eighth in the country in field goal percentage, might have been the nation's most consistent rookie. Her ability to maneuver inside against the 6-3 Stallworth and 6-1 Walker will also go a long way to determining the outcome.
Pick: Baylor -- Charlie Creme