A year ago at this time, Notre Dame’s streak of five straight seasons of advancing to the Final Four was snapped in the Sweet 16 at Lexington, Ky., by Stanford.
Tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN, head coach Muffet McGraw’s No. 2-ranked Fighting Irish return to the scene of the crime versus Ohio State, which despite a 28-6 record (15-1 in the Big Ten) and No. 11 ranking is only a No. 5 seed. The Buckeyes dispatched of No. 4 seed Kentucky last week, winning on the Wildcats’ home court at Rupp Arena, 82-68.
The story of the week in women’s basketball was the devastating loss of Notre Dame All-American, leading scorer, leading rebounder and ACC Defensive Player of The Year Brianna Turner to an ACL injury in the first half of Sunday’s 88-82 victory versus Purdue.
Since mid-February, Ohio State also has been without top post player Stephanie Mavunga (11.8 points and 11.3 rebound per game) with an injury, but Buckeyes head coach Kevin McGuff said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Mavunga could be back this week.
A shoulder injury sidelined Turner the last time these two teams met, a 75-72 victory at home by Notre Dame on Dec. 2, 2015 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Irish were led by the now graduated Madison Cable (25 points, 11 rebounds), current senior guard Lindsay Allen (20 points, six rebounds, five assists) and current junior forward Kathryn Westbeld (14 points), who also is hobbled by an ankle injury. It was with the same high-post, four-guard attack the Irish managed to triumph.
For Ohio State, All-America Kelsey Mitchell scored a game high 27 points while 6-2 forward Shayla Cooper had a double-double with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Both are back this year, with Mitchell’s 22.7 scoring average ranking No. 7 in the nation (and No. 3 among Power 5 Conference schools).
The Buckeyes are a fast-paced outfit with an 86.0 scoring average that ranks fourth nationally. Notre Dame is 13th with a 79.7 figure, and with four guards in the lineup it too likes to get into a transition game.
Notre Dame is 3-0 this year against the Big Ten teams, winning at Iowa, 73-58, at Michigan State, 79-61, and the aforementioned Purdue game. The Irish are on an 18-game winning streak against Big Ten teams (at game time), dating back to a loss to Minnesota in the 2009 NCAA Championship.
The current 16-game winning streak by the Irish is the second-longest active winning streak nationally behind only UConn (109). The Irish have not lost since a Jan. 16 setback at Tennessee.
OSU boss McGuff was an assistant at Notre Dame for McGraw when the Irish went to their first Final Four in 1997 before winning the national title together in 2001. His wife, Letitia Bowen, played for McGraw from 1991-95, scoring 1,219 points and grabbing 999 rebounds during her career. McGraw also is godmother to one of their children.
“I hate to have to play against one of my assistants or one of my friends,” McGraw admitted. “It’s hard with Letitia there and all their kids. It’s really a shame because I want to be cheering them on and, obviously, I’m not going to be cheering them on.”
Although head coach Jeff Jackson’s skaters made the 16-team NCAA Tournament field for the eighth time the past 11 years — and fourth in the last five — the Fighting Irish have not won in the postseason event since 2011, when they advanced to the Frozen Four. Jackson also led the Irish to the NCAA Championship Game in 2008, where it lost to Boston College.
Ironically, the greatest glory in the program’s history came from 2007-11 in spite of having some of the worst facilities in the sport. After opening the sparkling new Compton Family Ice Center in October 2011, the Irish have remained competitive but not nearly as successful in post-season action.
This was Notre Dame’s swan song season in Hockey East, as next year it will join Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin in the seven-team Big Ten Conference.
A sneak preview will occur this weekend versus the traditional power Golden Gophers in first-round action of the 2017 NCAA Northeast Regional. Face-off is on 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H., with the telecast on ESPNU.
The winner will then play in the 2017 NCAA Northeast Regional Championship game at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 26 against the winner of Saturday’s first game between No. 2 seed UMass Lowell and No. 3 seed Cornell.
Notre Dame is 7-6-2 against the NCAA Tournament field this year, and this will be the ninth meeting versus Minnesota in the last six seasons, with the Irish holding a 3-5 mark. The most recent was Nov. 6-7, 2015 at Notre Dame when the two foes split the series.
The Golden Gophers are coached by 1981 Notre Dame graduate Don Lucia, who played four years for head coach Lefty Smith. His son, Mario Lucia, starred for the Irish from 2012-16 and is in his first professional season in the AHL.
Jackson and Lucia are the only two head coaches in the 2017 field with multiple national titles, with Jackson’s coming at Lake Superior State in 1992 and 1994 (plus runner-up in 1993, as he was at ND in 2008), while Lucia did it at Minnesota in 2002 and 2003. Since then, he has advanced to the Frozen Four three other times, with a runner-up finish in 2014.
Lucia’s 18 NCAA Tournament appearances are the most among teams in this year’s field, while Jackson is second with 14.
Last but not least is the sport that the past 40 years has demonstrated far and away the most consistent excellence at Notre Dame.
Since 1977, the Fighting Irish have captured eight national titles (most recently 2011) and been the runner-up 13 other times, with numerous other third- and fourth-place finishes. (In 1990, the format began where men’s and women’s results were combined into one title, with Notre Dame winning it all in 1994, 2003, 2005 and 2011).
This week’s NCAA Championships, which began on Thursday and run through Sunday, are held at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.
After separately capturing both the men’s and women’s ACC titles in February, the combined units were in first place nationally after the first three rounds of men’s foil, epee and sabre on Thursday, and today the final two rounds, semifinals and finals will be held. Then on Saturday and Sunday, the women take the stage in those respective events.
Notre Dame totaled 57 points on Thursday, claiming 22 wins in sabre, 18 in foil and 17 in epee. The Irish are ahead of Ohio State (56), Columbia (51), Harvard (49) and Princeton (49) in the team standings.
Leading the Irish on the first day were junior Jonah Shainberg (second in sabre), senior Kristjan Acher (fourth in foil), junior Jonathan Fitzgerald (seventh in sabre) and freshman Ariel Simmons (eighth in epee).
The semifinal and championship bouts will be broadcast on ESPN3 or the WatchESPN app.
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