NCAA Tournament Norfolk Region Final: No. 5 Duke vs. No. 2 Notre Dame 7:05 p.m., ESPN

Knocking on Final Four door, Duke women relish underdog role

CorrespondentApril 2, 2013 

SPORTS BKW-NEBRASKA-DUKE 4 NN

Duke's' Elizabeth Williams, left, blocks the shot of Nebraska's Meghin Williams during Sunday's NCAA women's basketball regional semifinal on March 31, 2013, at the Ted Constant Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Duke won, 53-45. (Jonathon Gruenke/Newport News Daily Press/MCT)

JONATHON GRUENKE — MCT

  • NCAA Norfolk Region Championship

    No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils (33-2) vs.

    No. 1 seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (34-1)

    Time: 7:05 p.m., Constant Center, Norfolk, Va.

    All-time series: Notre Dame leads 5-1.

    Last meeting: Notre Dame 56, Duke 54 (Nov. 25, 2011 in Freeport, Bahamas.)

    Coaches: Duke, Joanne P. McCallie (490-182 in 21st season, 174-34 in 6th season at Duke); Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw (713-257 in 31st season, 625-216 in 26th season at Notre Dame).

    Leading scorers: No. 5 Duke – 6-3 So. C Elizabeth Williams (15.4, 7.4), 6-1 Jr. G Tricia Liston (13.4, 5.0), 6-3 Jr. F Haley Peters (12.1, 7.5); No. 2 Notre Dame – 5-9 Sr. G Skylar Diggins (17.1, 3.5), 5-11 Jr. G Kayla McBride (15.9, 4.6), 6-3 Jr. F Natalie Achonwa (13.9, 9.5).

    Next round: Connecticut (33-4) or Kentucky (31-5), Sunday in New Orleans, time TBA.

    TV: ESPN.

    Radio: WDNC 620.

— For the fourth year in a row, Duke is in exactly the same position.

At 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at Constant Center (ESPN), the fifth-ranked Blue Devils (33-2) will take on second-ranked Notre Dame (34-1) – which instantly became the favorite for the national championship when Louisville ended Brittney Griner’s playing career Sunday night – in the championship game of the Norfolk Regional.

The winner will head to New Orleans for a Final Four date Sunday with either Connecticut or Kentucky. Duke is looking for its first Women’s Final Four appearance since 2006.

This time could be different for Duke, which will become an instant rival for Muffet McGraw’s Irish when Notre Dame moves to the ACC next season.

In Duke’s three previous Elite Eight appearances under Joanne P. McCallie the Blue Devils had to go against Griner in 2010 (falling 51-48 in Memphis), then against a Connecticut team that has been able to do anything it wanted against the Blue Devils in recent years in 2011 (75-40 in Philadelphia), and then against Stanford last season (81-69 in a night game in Fresno, Calif.) with 6-foot-3 center Elizabeth Williams hobbling around on a bad leg.

Winning as an underdog “tingles,” said McCallie, who has guaranteed the best record of her coaching career this season and will be in a friendly environment tonight. “That’s the best I can give you on that. My experience on that would probably be (as Michigan State coach in 2005) down 16 to Tennessee with seven minutes left in the semifinal, and we obviously weren’t supposed to win that game, but those kids played really hard and did.

“We’ve got to just slow (the Irish) down in their scoring machine, do it across the board so that no particular player has a big game. It’s a team thing. They’re an excellent rebounding team, too.”

Duke will be without all-ACC junior guard Chelsea Gray (knee), but the Blue Devils have been adjusting to that since her season-ending knee injury on Valentine’s Day. Everyone else is good to go including Williams, who had seven blocks against Nebraska on Sunday as the ACC’s best shot blocker made her hometown college basketball debut.

“Most people are picking Notre Dame but I think that gives us a little bit of an edge,” Duke junior guard Tricia Liston said. “We really have nothing to lose in this game. There’s no pressure on us. No one thinks we can do this besides ourselves. This is an opportunity to go out and play loose and hopefully come out on top.

I like “our ability to fight back from adversity. Like in our game against Oklahoma State, we had to come back from a deficit (15 points in the NCAA Second Round at home). I think this team is really strong and has built up the resilience to really come together to fight back against whatever is thrown at us.”

Notre Dame is 5-1 against Duke, but all but one of those games was before the McCallie era. When the teams met in Bahamas last season, the Irish needed a long comeback to escape with a 56-54 win.

Notre Dame’s marquee player is of course 5-9 senior guard Skylar Diggins, who has gained a national following likely will be picked either No. 2 or No. 3 in the WNBA Draft. Diggins, who had a triple-double against Maryland in last year’s regional final in Raleigh, has a very strong supporting cast including fellow guards junior Kayla McBride and freshman Jewell Loyd, along with Natalie Achonwa, a 6-3 force in the paint who played in the Olympics for Canada.

“I think the center position matchup is going to be crucial for us, so that’s the one I’m most interested to see how it develops,” said McGraw, whose team has beaten Connecticut three times this season. “(And) I really, I want (a championship for Diggins). I think she has been such a phenomenal presence in our program – legendary. I don’t think that what she’s done is ever going to be matched and I would love nothing more than to see her go out a champion.”

Williams is not Duke’s only major firepower, of course, with tenacious junior forward Haley Peters and hot-shooting Liston providing consistent scoring. And freshman guard Alexis Jones, who has stepped in for Gray at the point, was named MVP of the ACC Tournament.

“Alexis has come in after Chelsea Gray’s injury and has really taken over at the point guard position,” Diggins said. “She is self-crafty with the ball and her passes. She has really stepped up her scoring in the last couple of games. Chloe Wells is shooting the ball so well now and Tricia Liston is also shooting well. She knows how to create her own shot and play smart on offense. Those are the three guards that really push them. We must put pressure on them and get the ball out of their hands so we can get out in transition.”

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