Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

Preview: No. 2 Notre Dame vs. Duke in ACC Quarterfinal

Notre Dame women begin quest for 3rd consecutive ACC crown against a Duke squad who, despite struggling at times this season, could be dangerous.

Quarterfinal/ACC Tournament: No. 2 Notre Dame (28-1, 16-0 ACC) vs. Duke (20-11, 8-8 ACC)
Date: March 4, 2016
Place: Greensboro Coliseum; Greensboro, NC
Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: ACC-Regional Sports Networks/ESPN3/WatchESPN
Opponent nickname: Blue Devils
Head coach: Joanne P. McCallie
Location: Durham, N.C.
How They Got Here: As regular-season ACC champs, the Irish received the No. 1 seed in the tournament to go along with a double bye. The Blue Devils, the No. 8 seed, survived a close game against Virginia, 57-53, to advance to the quarterfinals.

ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO

With a victory over Boston College in its final regular-season game, Notre Dame became ACC regular-season champs for the third time in as many years. The next step is another ACC crown followed by a shot at a second national championship. These are no longer the dreams of a team on the rise, but rather the expectations of one that has arrived - and stayed - among the nation's elite.

Head coach Muffet McGraw's squad has developed the ability to survive - and thrive - regardless of the circumstances surrounding the program. This year's team has overcome the early departure of Jewell Loyd to the WNBA, the season-ending injury of freshman Ali Patberg before she'd even played a minute, the shoulder injury of Brianna Turner, which sidelined her for six games, and the departure of captain Taya Reimer in December for personal reasons. 

The 2015-16 Irish aren't overly dominating a la Connecticut, but they are gritty, steady and relentless in their desire to win. The difference has been the swell of confidence that has emerged from the Irish year after year. Prior to Notre Dame's first-ever victory over powerhouse UConn in early 2001, McGraw noted that her team always thought they could beat the Huskies, but that year they believed they could do it. That attitude continues to infiltrate the program, and will serve them well again this year as they set their sights on ultimately arriving in Indianapolis for a sixth straight Final Four.

"I thought it was a phenomenal accomplishment for us to get through (conference play) undefeated,” McGraw noted after beating Boston College. “What we went through this year … it was a really interesting season for us. I think we got better throughout the year, especially the freshmen. But what would we have done without (senior) Madison Cable coming back and (Turner's) shoulder making it through? We are so blessed to have this class, these amazing young women. They just keep fighting every single day and find a way to win. No matter how ugly it gets at times, we rely on our defense, we rely on our rebounding, and (Turner and Cable) heavily.”

DUKING IT OUT

Notre Dame’s journey to Circle City will begin with the Blue Devils, a team the Irish met several times even before the Irish joined the ACC in 2013. Notre Dame has dominated the series, now 12-1 against the Blue Devils. Notre Dame also is 4-0 all-time against Duke in the post-season, including wins in the past two ACC Tournaments (69-53 in the 2014 championship game and 55-49 in last year's semifinals).

Duke was ranked has high as 12th this season, but was unranked by the end of January and lost five of its last eight games to end the regular season. It also dropped all six of its outings versus ranked teams, but the Blue Devils stayed close in those contests. Among them was a 72-66 OT loss to No. 12 Texas A&M, a 61-53 loss at 16th-ranked Miami and a 68-61 loss to the Irish on February 1. During that game in Durham, Notre Dame blew a 13-point lead and trailed by five with less than six minutes left in the game before rallying.

Duke also is no stranger to successful post-season play. The Blue Devils have won eight ACC Championships over the last 16 years, and have advanced to the ACC title game a total of 13 times. In addition, Duke has played in the NCAA Tournament for 20 straight years, during which they made four Final Four and two semifinals appearances.

THE LOW DOWN ON DOWN LOW

The Blue Devils’ roster includes a talented trio of bigs who have played well despite Duke’s ups and downs this season. It begins with 6-6 sophomore Azura Stevens who, despite missing seven games with an injury prior to the second-round game against Virginia, leads the Blue Devils at 18.9 ppg. In addition, 6-4 Oderah Chidom and 6-4 Amber Henson are contributing 9.6 and 4.7 ppg, respectively.

If Notre Dame forward Kathryn Westbeld, who sat out the last two regular-season games with an ankle injury, is still not available, Duke’s depth in the post (its roster also includes 6-4 sophomore Erin Mathias) could be a lot for Turner to handle.  The Irish would need quality minutes from Kristina Nelson and Diamond Thompson off the bench.

The other big Duke scoring threat is guard Rebecca Greenwell who is second on the team with 15.1 ppg, but Notre Dame has a few guards in their arsenal. Turner leads the Irish with 14.3 ppg, but close behind her are the heart-and-soul of the Irish Cable (13.6 ppg), the always-steady Lindsay Allen at the point (8.9 ppg) and a pair of fabulous freshmen: three-point specialist Marina Mabrey (10.9 ppg) and Arike Ogunbowale (12.2 ppg), arguably the best “sixth man” in the women’s college game this year.

Duke is trying to get things back on track before the Big Dance, and a second win in the ACC Tournament would be another big step in the right direction. But Notre Dame, with the last close outing against Duke still lingering in its memory, won’t let the Blue Devils hang around as long this time.

Prediction: Notre Dame 78, Duke 59


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