SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On the eve of her team’s first NCAA Tournament game ever, Bethune-Cookman coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis summed up the task the Lady Wildcats face Saturday against top-seeded Notre Dame, the defending national champion.
“I told my team before we left (Daytona Beach, Florida) Notre Dame has about eight McDonald’s All-Americans,” Blair-Lewis said. “We have about eight players who like to eat at McDonald’s.”
The Lady Wildcats (21-10), who earned the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference automatic berth by winning 10 of their last 11, face Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish (30-3), who have averaged 96 points in winning its last nine games behind a starting five nearing a combined 10,000 points in their careers. The winner plays either No. 8 seed Central Michigan (25-7) or No. 9 seed Michigan State (20-11) on Monday.
“We know we have a daunting task ahead of us, but we’ve been the underdogs all year,” Blair-Lewis said of having six players miss time for various injuries, including five knee surgeries.
That’s something McGraw experienced last season. Advancing to the Final Four despite losing four players to season-ending ACL knee injuries, the Irish used two buzzer-beaters by Arike Ogunbowale to win the title.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished,” McGraw said of the Lady Wildcats, who are led by 5-foot-8 senior Angel Golden, the MEAC Tournament’s outstanding performer averaging 19.7 points and 6-foot senior Chasimmie Brown, who averages 10.5 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Notre Dame counters with a starting five all averaging double figure in points: Ogunbowale (21.0), Jessica Shepard (16.5), Jackie Young (14.8), Brianna Turner (14.4) and Marina Mabrey (13.9).
While the other four were starters a season ago, the 6-foot-3 Turner watched last year’s title run from the bench, sitting out the entire season after suffering her ACL injury in the 2017 tournament against Purdue. Back for her fifth season, she gives Notre Dame a shot-blocking presence (350 career) and her rebounding skills (990 in four seasons) mesh well with those of the 6-foot-4 Shepard, who has 1,175 in a college career that began at Nebraska, to give Notre Dame maybe the best transition game among Division I women.
“Brianna is excited to be back in the NCAA tournament – she has a big bounce in her step,” McGraw said.
Coming off her MVP performance in the ACC Tournament, Young, a 6-foot junior guard, may be Notre Dame’s most versatile player with two triple-doubles to her credit this season. She averages 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.4 steals.
“I think they wrote the story in the Bible of David and Goliath for a reason,” Blair-Lewis said.
The winner plays either No. 8-seed Central Michigan (25-7) or No. 9-seed Michigan State (20-11) in Monday’s second round.
FAMILIAR FOES: Despite their home courts being just 68 miles from each other, the Chippewas and the Spartans have not played since the 2005-06 season when Michigan State won 75-50 in East Lansing.
But their current coaches are familiar with their rival’s campus – Sue Guevara was an assistant at Michigan State until becoming head coach at Michigan in 1996 and moving to Central Michigan in 2007. That was the same season Merchant, a 1991 CMU graduate, left Eastern Michigan to coach at Michigan State.
“I think it’s great for both programs – I think we’re going to have a fair amount of Michigan State fans who are torn,” said Guevara, who took the 30-5 Chippewas to last year’s Sweet 16 with victories over No. 24 LSU and No. 10 Ohio State.
The Chippewas, who suffered a 72-68 heartbreaking loss at home to Louisville Dec. 20, did something Notre Dame didn’t do this season – win at Miami, Fla. 90-80 on Dec. 30. They enter off an 82-77 semifinal loss to Buffalo, the eventual Mid-American Tournament champion and are led by 6-foot forward Reyna Frost, who averages a double-double (21.8 points, 13.5 rebounds) and 5-foot-6 point guard Presley Hudson (20.4 points), who broke the school’s career assists mark held by Merchant, who sent her congratulations.
“I won’t say how long that’s been (the record) because I still think I should be 29 every year,” Merchant said. “(Hudson) is a million times the player I was.”
The Spartans, coming off a 71-55 quarterfinal loss to Big Ten Tournament runner-up Maryland, are led by Canadian guard Shay Colley, who averages 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists, and 6-foot-4 center Jenna Allen (12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds).

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