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Notre Dame’s ‘Road Less Traveled’

It’s not supposed to be like this, but the Notre Dame women’s basketball program is familiar with taking “the road less traveled” in the NCAA Tournament.

Juniors Natalie Achonwa (left), Ariel Braker (middle) and Kayla McBride (right) are gunning for their third straight Final Four.

No. 1 seeds like Notre Dame with its 32-1 record and 27-game winning streak usually host the first two games, but paperwork tardiness reportedly from last spring now has it traveling to Iowa City, Iowa, for the first two rounds.

After disposing of No. 16 seed Tennessee-Martin 97-64 on Sunday, the Irish now have to play the host team, 21-12 Iowa, which this year tied the school record for number of wins over ranked teams in a season with seven. The game is scheduled to start at 9:40 p.m. ET and will be televised by ESPN2.

The Hawkeyes are 335-96 (.777) in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and they are the lone Big Ten team to have appeared in the last six NCAA Tournaments. No. 9 seed Iowa defeated No. 8 seed Miami 69-53 on Sunday.

This is not foreign terrain to Notre Dame. Two years ago en route to the NCAA title game, the No. 2 seed Irish opened with a NCAA Tournament play against No. 15 seed Utah on the Utes’ home floor in Salt Lake City. Notre Dame led by only five points with eight minutes left before pulling away to a 67-54 victory.

While acknowledging disappointment this past week that the Irish weren’t sent to more nearby Columbus, Ohio, in the Norfolk Region, and admitting that facing Iowa on its home court could be “extremely dangerous,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw believes that her battle-tested program that is aiming for a third straight title game appearance has the maturity to deal with this twist of fate.

The Irish opened the season on an aircraft carrier in November by beating a ranked Ohio State team, won at UCLA in December, stunned then No. 1-rated Connecticut on its home court in January with 10,167 in attendance, and later vanquished No. 9 Tennessee (77-67) in front of 13,556 on a night when the Volunteers honored coaching legend Pat Summitt.

Just for good measure, Notre Dame also won the Big East Championship this month in Hartford, Conn. The Irish are 19-0 this season away from the Purcell Pavilion.

“We’ve had some good tests, we’ve weathered a lot of storms and come through a lot of things, have had different people step up, so I think we’re really tournament ready,” McGraw said. “It’s important to have that experience in the Final Four so that this team knows what to expect.”

“I don’t think it really bothers us,” said junior guard Kayla McBride, who scored 22 points (10 of 13 from the floor) and grabbed 10 rebounds in the first-round victory over Tennessee-Martin. “We’ve played in a lot of hostile environments. … We just have to keep that mental toughness, keep that chip on our shoulder because you know everybody is coming after us.”

“We’ve played in a lot of great facilities, a lot of great home courts, a lot of great fans,” echoed junior center Natalie Achonwa, who has a school-record- tying 16 double-doubles this year.

“It comes down to mental toughness and how you prepare and how you’re willing to attack and still be aggressive. It’s just about playing the game you want to play and the game that you practice. We had one of the hardest non-conference schedules out there … I think we’re pretty much ready for anything.”

Iowa is led by 6-5 senior center and second-team All-Big Ten pick Morgan Johnson (14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game), one of three players who averages double-figure scoring for the Hawkeyes. Sophomore point guard Samantha Logic has a team-high 212 assists, but also averages 9.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest.

Notre Dame will have its familiar starting five headlined by consensus senior All-American guard Skylar Diggins; McBride, who McGraw says deserves All-American notice; Achonwa; freshman Jewell Loyd, who made her NCAA Tournament debut Sunday with a career high 27 points; and junior Ariel Braker. Backup center, sophomore Markisha Wright, is from Des Moines, Iowa.

The only other time the two programs played was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Nov. 17, 1996. It was a watershed moment for the Irish when they defeated sixth-ranked Iowa (61-50) — their first victory ever against a top-10 ranked team. Later that season, McGraw directed the Irish to their first Final Four.

Notre Dame has traveled a long way since that initial trip to Iowa City … and its road show has become even better.

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