The Notre Dame women got a top seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year – and what may be their last chance for a while to be the belles of the (basket) ball.
DePaul once again hopes to be a Cinderella.
And Illinois, which looked as if it would be invited until the 11th hour, wound up without a date for the 10th straight season.
The second-ranked Irish (31-1), making their 18th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, meet 16th seed Tennessee-Martin Sunday at 4:05 in Iowa City.
DePaul (21-11) made it 11 straight with a No. 10 seed and game with seventh-seeded Oklahoma State Sunday at 1:30 in Durham, N.C.
"It never gets old," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said.
Both the Irish and Blue Demons could meet teams playing at home in the second round – Iowa and Duke.
The other No. 1 seeds, as expected, were defending champion Baylor, Stanford and Connecticut.
The Final Four is April 7 and 9 in New Orleans.
Sparked by one of the country’s top players, Skylar Diggins, the Irish made it to the last two championship games.
"Being the number one seed puts a little bit of a target on our back," Diggins said.
In 2011, they were five points up on Texas A&M early in the second half before losing 76-70. Last year, they were never a match for Brittney Griner and unbeaten Baylor in an 80-61 defeat.
While Diggins is the only Notre Dame player of note who won’t return next year, her contributions have been so immense Muffet McGraw may need to do an even more impressive coaching job than she did this season if the Irish are to remain a title contender in the immediate future.
“They retooled a lot faster than I thought they could,” Bruno said of the Irish. “I thought they would be a top 10 team but not as good as they had been the past two years.”
McGraw had to replace Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory who last season accounted for 42 percent of the Irish scoring, 40 percent of the rebounding and half the successful three-point shots.
That missing production was picked up by junior Natalie Achonwa, whose rebounding (9.3) was more double a year ago and whose scoring (13.8) was up by 6.2 points points per game; junior Kayla McBride, who added 3.8 points to her scoring average (15.4); and freshman Jewell Loyd of Niles West (11.8 points, 5.2 rebounds.)
Notre Dame is in the same half of the bracket as its archrival, Connecticut, which means the Irish must worry about the law of averages. They have beaten UConn four straight times, including the last two NCAA semifinals, and seven of their past eight meetings.
DePaul, with an RPI of 26, had its share of injuries again this season, but they were nothing like the woes that last year cost Bruno his best player in early December and left him with just a group he called “The Magnificent Seven” heading into the NCAA tourney.
Once again, DePaul lost its best player, Anna Martin, but her knee injury was not season-ending. Martin, the leading scorer (15.7) and most consistent outside threat, missed eight straight games before returning at the end of February.
The Blue Demons also had stretches without their two top bench players, Glenview’s Megan Podkowa (seven games) and Prospect Heights’ Megan Rogowski (eight), but the entire roster now is healthy.
"I'm excited about that," Bruno said. "I'm even more excited because we haven't come close to playing consistently well together. (We have) the chance to be better this late in the season."
Oklahoma State has overcome tragic adversity to get into the NCAA tourney for the 11th time. Its head coach, Kurt Budke, and assistant, Miranda Serna, died in a plane crash during a recruiting trip in November 2011.
The Cowgirls (21-10) trailed Baylor by just three points with 94 seconds to play before losing 77-69 in the semis of this year's Big 12 tournament.
Illinois (RPI: 80) looked as if it would get a bid until dropping four of its final five games, including a first-round Big Ten tourney loss to Wisconsin (RPI: 123).
Six Big Ten teams made the NCAA tourney, led by sixth-ranked Penn State and No. 14 Purdue, which beat Michigan State in the final of the conference tournament. The Spartans, Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan also are going.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun