The Dayton region of the women's NCAA tournament has been all about the chalk so far, with the only "upsets" being 6 seed Oklahoma's victory over 3 seed Miami and 10 seed Temple's win over 7 seed Arizona State. (To be honest, I don't really consider either game an upset.) With such stability, it makes total sense that the two best teams in the region would be locking horns for the chance to go to the Final Four in Indianapolis. This has the promise of being the best game of the entire region, as Tennessee brings depth, offense, and intensity against Notre Dame's precision and balance.
Tennessee has arrived at this point by doing what it needed to do to get the #1 seed in the region; since a listless loss to Baylor on December 14, the Lady Vols have stayed undefeated and have corrected most of their turnover issues and lackluster stretches. It's still a team that is prone to moments of carelessness with the ball and on defense, but those moments are shorter and fewer than at any time in the season. In their most recent game against Ohio State, they committed only 8 turnovers and showed an energy level in the second half that had been missing since the SEC tournament.
In the other corner, Notre Dame finished 29-7 with three losses against UConn and one against Baylor. Their worst loss of the year was probably against Kentucky back in November, which is a convenient way of saying that they don't tend to play bad games. The key to Notre Dame's success this year is having a senior-laden roster coupled with a dynamic sophomore point guard, Skylar Diggins. The team surrounds Diggins with enough experience and on-court savvy that she can allow her individual talents to flourish on the court, to the tune of over 14 points and over 4 assists per game.
If you just look at stat lines, you'd think that Notre Dame is the Big East's equivalent to Tennessee. Against Oklahoma, they rebounded the Sooners 47-24 and have averaged 41 rebounds to their opponents' 32 this year. They shoot 48% from the field and 35% from behind the arc. The Irish also have more turnovers (617) than assists (608) on the year. But the way Notre Dame gets there is much different than Tennessee.
The Lady Vols like to push tempo and turn the contest into a transition game. With Tennessee's length and athleticism, they can run the floor very effectively, including their posts. If they can draw opponents into an up-and-down style of play with quick shots and constant changes in possession, they can eventually wear down an opponent, relying on their very deep bench to keep fresh legs and sharp minds on the floor at all times. In contrast, Notre Dame prefers to work out of the halfcourt. They have a very well-tuned offense with juniors and seniors who are accustomed to reading each other and anticipating their next moves. That experience has helped Skylar Diggins fit in, as the team has adapted to her individual talents. The defensive end looks similar; the Irish play as a unit very well. In fact, it's easiest to think of Notre Dame as a balanced, precision team more than anything else.
At the time of this writing, Irish post Becca Bruszewski is questionable for the game. She is nicknamed "Bruiser" because she likes to play very physically under the basket and often wears such badges of courage on her fair skin. Late in the first half of the Oklahoma game, she took a fall under the basket with an Oklahoma player landing on her left knee and had to leave the game for a while. Despite returning for a few minutes, she was very limited and only ended with 16 total minutes of action. For a player that has been giving 25 to 30 minutes of action as of late, her loss could potentially be huge for the Irish. She's considered their emotional leader on the floor, and her absence would thin out an otherwise very good post rotation.
But the focus of Notre Dame will again be on their point guard. Diggins (who is the Skylar with the best year in college basketball this year) sets up the Irish offense and, even though she is only the second-leading scorer on the team, is a terrific ball handler and shooter who has thrived this year with all the veterans around her.
This is not an easy match for Tennessee. The Lady Vols have more talent and athleticism, and they have the depth, but Notre Dame is the best team they've faced so far in the tournament. The concern for Tennessee is their slow starts; Notre Dame is good enough to take advantage to pull out early in the game if Tennessee doesn't play sharp basketball for all 40 minutes. While their depth and ridiculous talent level has been sufficient to come back from slow starts in previous games, this is a game where they may not be able to make big enough scoring runs to mount a comeback if they let the Irish develop a sizeable lead in the first half.
It doesn't help that three-point specialist Brittany Mallory went 6 for 10 from the perimeter against Oklahoma, thus ending a slump that had persisted over the last few games. With the three-point shot working for the Irish, they will be more confident in their inside-out game and look to stretch Tennessee's defense out.
Like all games so far, I honestly believe that this is still Tennessee's game to win or lose, despite all the accolades that Notre Dame has thus deserved. But Tennessee will have to earn this one the honest way; deciding to turn the jets on after halftime may be a little too late, especially if the Irish can cause some foul trouble and disrupt Tennessee's ability to rotate their players as they would like.
The game tips off Monday at 7 PM Eastern on ESPN. The winner goes to the Final Four; the loser gets regrets.