CHICAGO (AP) — Notre Dame comes rolling into the Chicago Region semifinals with a second straight NCAA championship in sight.
If the Fighting Irish are going to bring home the big prize again, they will have to win a Sweet 16 rematch along the way.
Top-seeded Notre Dame faces No. 4 seed Texas A&M in the regional semifinals for the second year in a row, while No. 2 seed Stanford goes against 11th-seeded Missouri State on Saturday. The winners will meet Monday for a trip to the Final Four in Tampa Bay.
“There definitely is a great sense of confidence knowing we’ve been here before, we’ve won these types of games before, and we certainly are capable of doing it again,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
Notre Dame beat Texas A&M 90-84 in the Sweet 16 last year as part of a championship run that ended with a thrilling comeback against Mississippi State. Arike Ogunbowale hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left to give the Irish a 61-58 victory and their second national championship.
The only losses for Notre Dame (32-3) this season were to Connecticut in Hartford and at both North Carolina and Miami. The Irish have won 11 straight games — all by at least 18 points, including a 91-63 blowout against Michigan State in the second round.
But getting out of Chicago won’t be easy. Three of the four teams have won NCAA championships and the one that doesn’t — Missouri State — is on its best run in years. The Lady Bears (25-9) come in on a 24-2 tear that has propelled them to the Sweet 16 for the first time since Jackie Stiles led them on an incredible Final Four run in 2001.
There are two Hall of Fame coaches in McGraw and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and another with 791 wins — Texas A&M’s Gary Blair. He led the Aggies to a national championship victory over Notre Dame in 2011.
“Every team here has great tradition, has outstanding players, just everything that makes for a very exciting regional,” said VanDerveer, whose Cardinal (30-4) bring an 11-game win streak.
Here are some things to know about the regional games in Chicago:
If anyone can figure out how to slow Texas A&M guard Chennedy Carter, McGraw sure would like to know. The SEC’s leading scorer this season, she has been particularly hard to stop in the NCAAs.
The sophomore has a 30.2 scoring average in five tournament games. The only other players to average at least 30 over five or more NCAA games are Sheryl Swoopes and Elena Delle Donne.
“Yeah, we don’t have an answer,” McGraw said. “We’ve tried a lot of different things at practice; honestly, none of them really looked good.”
McGraw and VanDerveer are part of a small group of coaches with two or more championships, along with Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Linda Sharp and Kim Mulkey. Notre Dame also won it all in 2001, while Stanford took home the top prize in 1990 and 1992. VanDerveer leads all coaches in NCAA appearances with 34, and with 86 tournament wins, she trails only Geno Auriemma (119) and Summitt (112).
The Aggies (26-7) were looking forward to the rematch with the Irish. Ogunbowale scored 17 of her 27 points in the second half and Marina Mabrey added 25, hitting a career-high seven 3-pointers, to help Notre Dame beat Texas A&M in the Spokane Region semifinals last year. Carter had 31 points and seven assists for the Aggies in that game.
“Bittersweet end to last year,” Carter said. “Didn’t really accomplish the things we wanted to. But for us all to get another chance, and me to really get out there and be with my teammates, I’m really excited. Notre Dame is a great team filled with a bunch of great guards, so I’m ready to test my game, and I’m sure my teammates are ready to play, as well.”
With 13 trips to the Final Four, Stanford ranks third behind UConn (19) and Tennessee (18). Notre Dame checks in at No. 5 with eight. Stanford also has 19 Elite Eight appearances, while the Irish have nine — seven in the past eight years. Texas A&M is looking for its fourth regional final after making back-to-back Sweet 16s for the first time since 2011-12.
From losing seven of the first eight games to making the Sweet 16, it’s been quite a turnaround for Missouri State. A 70-67 loss to then-No. 21 Gonzaga left the Lady Bears with a 1-7 record. But it also left them thinking they could turn around the season.