- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tuesday night's NCAA regional final between Maryland and Notre Dame might play out like a game of chicken: Which team swerves first?
You see, each squad comes into the game with a distinct advantage -- Maryland on the glass, Notre Dame on the perimeter -- and neither team seems particularly inclined to change its style of play to match the other. The Terps, the No. 2 seed, are loath to go small, while the Irish, the No. 1 seed, like their tough-as-nails lineup, even if it includes four guards and no one taller than 6-foot-2 forward Devereaux Peters.
The Irish want to drive their sporty Jeep all over the court; Maryland is behind the wheel of something more like a Suburban.
"We have to rely on what we're good at" explains Peters, who's grabbing 9.4 rebounds a game and will need every last one of them on Tuesday. "I think it goes both ways."
While Notre Dame will inevitably have a 5-foot-10 guard trying to bang down low with one of the Terps' 6-foot-3 power forwards, that same matchup will force a Maryland power forward, usually accustomed to on-the-block physicality, to move her feet on the perimeter.
"It will be difficult for us to match up and that is one of our main challenges heading into the game," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "In our coaches meeting, that is the thing we are trying to figure out now."
The two teams are playing for a spot in the Final Four on Tuesday night (ESPN, 9 p.m.).
"We will use our length to get on the glass," Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas said. "We know that gives a lot of teams trouble. We are able to use our length on defense to create a lot of havoc."
It's not an overstatement to say Maryland is the best rebounding team in the country. The Terps rebounding margin of plus-13.8 was second only to Liberty, which ended its season at plus-15.6 but played a much weaker schedule.
"They look like they enjoy rebounding," McGraw said.
And the Irish look like they enjoy playing in-your-face small ball, with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
"As good as Notre Dame is, we want to play to our strengths which are rebounding the basketball and getting out in transition," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "This game could be one of the greatest in the history of the Elite Eight -- and putting someone in the Final Four."
Unless Maryland absolutely dominates inside early, or Notre Dame zips around the Terps in the first half, what we'll likely see is each team relying on its strengths, playing through dips, and staying the course with the season-long game plan.
So what will provide the difference?
Quite simply, one star will shine brightest on Tuesday night. Will it be Notre Dame's guard tandem of Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel (averaging a combined 31.9 points a game) or will it be Maryland's sophomore combo package of guard Laurin Mincy and Thomas (averaging a combined 30.6 points a game).
"They are a very good team and have gained notoriety all year, especially with Alyssa Thomas," Diggins said. "She is a great left-handed guard-forward who plays hard all the time. Then Laurin Mincey, who is a New Jersey style player and can hit you with moves."
In the NCAA tournament, Mincy and Thomas are averaging 34.4 points a game.
But it might not be someone you expect who shines brightest. Perhaps an X factor sneaks from behind the curtain -- here's looking at the Terps' Lynetta Kizer or the Irish's reserve 6-3 forward, Natalie Anchonwa -- and steps into the spotlight?
"I don't think we feel a lot of pressure," Mincy said. "No one expected us to be here and get this far. I think in the second round, when we faced Louisville, we did have a little pressure. But from now on we are just playing 40 minutes."
It's likely neither team will swerve on Tuesday night; they'll just drive straight into the other.
And it'll be fun to watch.
17dBonnie D. Ford