The Gamecocks are getting ready to play in their first Final Four. Standing between Carolina and a shot at the program's first-ever national title is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. What is Carolina up against? Let's take a closer look.
Whereas the Gamecocks are making their first-ever Final Four appearance this weekend, the Irish have been here many times. In fact, this is Notre Dame's fifth-straight Final Four. Unfortunately for the Irish, their recent run of excellence has coincided with UConn's dominance the past two seasons, Baylor's run with Brittany Griner three seasons ago, and a loss to Texas A&M four seasons ago. Despite the four Final Four appearances and three finishes in the title game, the Irish have not cut down the nets in recent years. Last year, the Irish were undefeated before going down to UConn. However, the program did win a national title in 2000-2001. The Irish have been in the tournament each year since 1995-96. Notre Dame hasn't quite achieved Tennessee's or Connecticut's levels of success in terms of winning titles, but the Irish are pretty close. This is an elite program, exactly the kind of program Dawn Staley wants Carolina to be long-term.
Another thing about Notre Dame that Dawn probably wants to emulate in the Irish's coach. Notre Dame has been led during its run of success by Muffet McGraw, who has coached the Irish since 1987. McGraw has an overall record of 751-259, which includes stops prior to South Bend, and a 663-218 record in her current position. Her accomplishments during her tenure are too many to name here. McGraw is a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. The foundation of her success has been that McGraw and her staff are masterful recruiters who have had great success bringing in and developing star players in South Bend. Many of these players have gone on to success in the WNBA.
This season, the Irish come into the game with a 35-2 record. One of those losses came to Connecticut, an experience the Gamecocks know well. The other came on the road to a decent but not great Miami team in a game where the Irish got caught off guard and had too big of a deficit to make up after the half. Since then, the Irish have reeled off 21 straight wins. This is a team with some youth--freshman forward Brianna Turner is one of its best players--and that has gotten better as the year has progressed.
Common opponents between Notre Dame and USC include Duke, UNC, Connecticut, Syracuse, and FSU. The results are fairly similar. UConn beat the Irish soundly; maybe it wasn't as bad as USC's trip to Storrs, but the Irish got the Huskies in South Bend. Both teams had close wins against the other teams. This is a team that, based on past results, USC should be very competitive against. Notre Dame is a great team, but they're not blowing everyone off the court like UConn.
Who are the players to watch for? Junior guard Jewell Lloyd is Notre Dame's Tiffany Mitchell. Lloyd is a unanimous All-American and a candidate for national player of the year. Brianna Turner is the Irish's A'ja Wilson. The freshman forward was second behind Wilson in last year's recruiting rankings, and like Wilson, Turner has made an immediate impact, coming in at second behind Lloyd in scoring for the team. The Irish have two more players in double-digits scoring, Lindsay Allen and Taya Reimer. Both teams are very deep, each with nine players averaging double-digit minutes.
These two teams are, as we can see, pretty evenly matched. Perhaps what the game will come down to will be the dynamic of Carolina being in its first Final Four and Notre Dame being a regular. Will Carolina's first appearance lead to inspired play against a Notre Dame team that is worried about coming home empty-handed from the Final Four yet again? Or will Notre Dame's business-like approach to a Final Four game lead to a win against a jittery Carolina team?