INDIANAPOLIS — Already packed with one surprise after another, the NCAA women’s tournament has one big dose of intrigue left when Notre Dame and Texas A&M play for the championship.
The traditional powers — Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford — are all gone, only the second time ever the title game won’t have a No. 1 seed in it. But there’s a budding star in Irish standout Skylar Diggins, a new participant in the Aggies and an entertaining, outspoken coach in Texas A&M’s Gary Blair.
“It’s good to see two new faces in the Final Four championship game,” Blair said. “It’s good for the game of basketball right now. Don’t take anything away from what Pat and Geno and Tara have accomplished. For our sport to grow we need Texas A&M and Notre Dame in this game.”
The two schools better known for their play on the gridiron will take the grandest stage in women’s basketball on Tuesday night in one of the biggest surprise finals in NCAA tournament history— even though both are No. 2 seeds.
“Somebody said only one person predicted that it was going to be an A&M-Notre Dame matchup out of all the millions of people who do a bracket,” Texas A&M guard Sydney Colson said. “I think the fact there have been these upsets is really helping out with women’s basketball. I think it will get some of those top-name girls to branch out to other schools and realize it’s not just UConn a nd Stanford and Tennessee that can win national championships.”
Diggins was one of those girls. She grew up in South Bend and was a diehard Irish fan who cheered them on as they won their only national championship in 2001.
“I was there, hands on the TV,” said Diggins, who was 10 at the time. “If they lost I’d have been crushed.”
Now the dynamic sophomore guard has a chance to complete one of the most remarkable runs in NCAA tournament history.
Diggins led the Irish to back-to-back victories over two Irish nemeses, Tennessee and Connecticut — the first time a team has ever beaten those two juggernauts in the same NCAA tournament. Amazingly, it’s only happened eight times during the same regular season, according to STATS LLC.
“It’s awesome,” Diggins said. “This team is very proud of itself and we’re not done yet.”
There are a lot of similarities between that last title run and this one. Notre Dame also beat UConn in the Final Four after losing to them in the Big East tournament championship game. The Irish’s starting point guard, Niele Ivey, was a third team All-America like Diggins was this season.
“I’m enjoying the circle. We had our championship reunion in the fall and the team came in,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “They presented a ball to this team and said, you know, ‘We’ve won our championship, now it’s your turn.”
Standing in the way is Texas A&M (32-5), the national championship newcomer that bullied its way through the tournament. Like Notre Dame, Texas A&M vanquished its conference rival, beating Baylor in the Dallas regional final after losing to the Lady Bears three times during the season.
Texas A&M has been riding a relentless defense that didn’t allow more than 50 points until Stanford scored 62 in the semifinals. Fortunately for the Aggies, a lay-up with 3.3 seconds left was enough to lift them over the top-seeded Cardinal.
Offensively, the Aggies rely on Danielle Adams, who became the first All-America in school history. And their defense is fueled by the harassing guards — Colson and the other Sydney, Sydney Carter.
“A lot of people, I don’t want to say they fear our defense, but I think they really respect what we do on the defensive end,” Carter said. “And we take so much pride on the defensive end and making people feel uncomfortable and making them do things that they don’t want to do.”
Added Colson: “It’s going to be a physical game, I think they’re just as physical as we are. And I think it’s just going to be an all-out battle.”
The Irish (31-7) are rugged, too, proud of their defense and their dynamic young star, Diggins.
With 28 points in the seven-point win over Connecticut, Diggins has become an overnight national sensation. She gained nearly 20,000 new Twitter followers after Sunday’s victory over Maya Moore and the two-time defending champion Huskies.
It helped to get a tweet shoutout from rapper Lil Wayne, who has 1.6 million followers.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “I just have fun on Twitter. I have a lot of young girls following me and asking how I handle different situations. I have to understand that I’m a mentor and a role model and act as such.”
And with Tennessee and Connecticut both gone — only the fifth time since 1995 that neither was in the title game — Notre Dame is ready to seize the moment.
“I think a lot of people were happy to see a different face in the final game,” McGraw said. “I think it’s great what Connecticut’s done for the Big East and for women’s basketball, and I think it’s also great to have some new teams come in and maybe appeal to a lot more people.”