Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said she knows Kansas’ Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament has been good for a college game that suffers from underexposure and a lack of upsets.
And while the Irish (33-1) want to play spoiler to the Cinderella story, McGraw said it will be tougher than advertised against the “underseeded” Jayhawks (20-13) on Sunday in Norfolk, Va.
“Everybody else is looking for an upset,” McGraw said. “It gives maybe renewed interest to the round of 16, where I think in the past top seeds have advanced.”
The Jayhawks have peaked at the right time, McGraw said, and put together an unprecedented NCAA run as a result. Kansas became the first No. 12 seed to crack the round of 16 after taking down No. 5 Colorado and No. 4 South Carolina last week in Boulder, Colo.
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Now, they will face an Irish squad with Skylar Diggins, one of the most recognized faces — and best players — in women’s basketball, and have a chance at another dazzling upset.
“Our kids have worked hard to get to this point,” Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “I think we’re playing with some confidence here down the stretch.”
Kansas point guard Angel Goodrich will be at the forefront of any upset bid, and her matchup might is representative of the task ahead of the Jayhawks. The 5-foot-4 point guard will square off with Diggins, a projected top-three WNBA Draft pick and three-time All-American who averages 16.8 points, 5.9 assists and three steals.
Goodrich averages 14.4 points, seven steals and 2.8 steals herself, but recognizes she will have to play her best game to help her team usurp Notre Dame.
“We’ve got to come in very focused,” Goodrich said. “It’s going to be a great challenge between us two.”
The rest of a Jayhawks squad that has risen to that challenge throughout the tournament will have to be at its best, as well.
With the departure of Tania Jackson earlier in the season, as well as a season-ending injury for starter Natalie Knight of Olathe South in a Jan. 30 overtime win against Iowa State, the Jayhawks stumbled through the latter half of the Big 12 schedule. Kansas went 4-6 in the final 10 games of the regular season and was bounced in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.
But the Jayhawks, who were ranked at several points throughout the season, found an identity without Knight and have strung together some of their best basketball of the season in mid-March.
Hendrickson’s squad has outscored its opponents by 10.5 points in the NCAA Tournament and has averaged 71 points against two stout defenses.
The Jayhawks have put five players in double figures in those wins, including the usual strong contributions from a trio of seniors: Goodrich, guard Monica Engelman and forward Carolyn Davis.
Now, Goodrich said, it will hope for even better against a heavily favored top seed.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “We want to just continue to go on this run and just have fun.”