By GARY B. GRAVES
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Notre Dame and Stanford have crossed paths so much lately in the NCAA Tournament their looming matchup in the Lexington Regional final seemed almost inevitable.
The powerhouse programs have traded Sweet 16 wins the past two years, but the stakes today at Rupp Arena are much higher: A Final Four berth is on the line.
No one from either school is all that surprised it has come to this given the bracket and the seeding.
“My first thought was Ohio State is going to be in our bracket,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
Her top-seeded Irish (33-3) are looking to avenge last year’s 90-84 loss in Lexington to the No. 2 seed Cardinal (31-5), a result that ended their 26-game winning streak.
“Then we started thinking, ‘uh-oh, we got Texas’. We got Stanford. That’s a tough four teams we’re going to have to eventually play. … But it was an opportunity for us to look at what we did last year and see if we could take one more step.”
Notre Dame has won 17 straight, but getting there required overcoming last Sunday’s season-ending knee injury to star forward Brianna Turner. The Irish did that in Friday’s 99-76 semifinal rout of No. 5 Ohio State, with sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale scoring 32 points to lead six players in double figures.
Their next step is maintaining that offensive balance against Stanford.
“Our whole team played really well without Brianna,” Ogunbowale said, “and I’m just really excited to play on Sunday.”
The Cardinal, meanwhile, welcome another shot at the Irish after rallying past No. 3 seed Texas 77-66 in the other semifinal. Stanford also has its share of scorers and used them along with impressive poise to overcome turnovers and yet another deficit to win its seventh straight.
This time, there’s no margin for error.
“We’re going to have to come out and play well offensively, and we’re going to have to play well defensively,” coach Tara VanDerveer said.
Maintaining composure is certainly important against Notre Dame, which is 7-0 in the Elite Eight and seeks its sixth Final Four in seven years. The Cardinal are pursuing their first berth since 2014, making another meeting against a familiar foe seem almost fitting.
“I think it’s good to play the team you’re comfortable with,” Stanford forward Erica McCall said. “I know the scouting report on them. I think the NCAA committee just really likes this matchup, and they want to see it time and time again. It means it must be pretty iconic.”
Other things to watch in the Lexington Regional final:
COMING UP BIG: Notre Dame guard Lindsay Allen is averaging 24 points in two games against Stanford, including 20 last March. She’s also averaging 5 rebounds and 4.5 assists against the Cardinal.
TIME TRAVELERS: Stanford players, their bodies accustomed to Pacific time, shrugged off Sunday’s noon tipoff. They have adjusted after being away for more than a week. “It’s been basketball, finals and resting,” guard Marte Sniezek said.
MARQUEE COACHES: VanDerveer (1,011) and McGraw (853) meet in just the second NCAA Tournament game between women’s coaches with at least 850 wins each. VanDerveer had 925 when Stanford beat North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell (935) in the Elite Eight three years ago.