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Notre Dame

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Associated Press
Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd pulls down a rebound against Arizona State. The Irish outrebounded the opposition 84-53 in the first two rounds of the tournament.

Irish put Sweet 16 focus on rebounding, turnovers

Team motivated by edge of playing on home floor

– There were few surprises in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

A pair of customarily lopsided victories – 93-42 over Robert Morris on Saturday and 84-67 over Arizona State on Monday – put Notre Dame into the Sweet 16, where it plays host to a regional.

As the top-seeded Irish (34-0) prepare to face No. 5 seed Oklahoma State (25-8) in South Bend three days from now, they like their play, mental approach and level of confidence.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw appreciated her team’s 22-6 start against the Colonials and took pride in its ability to overcome a tight first half in the second-round game.

“I thought we learned a lot in the first two games,” McGraw said. “I was really pleased with the way we came out against Robert Morris. I was pleased with the way we responded to the challenge (Monday). Defensively, we did a pretty good job.”

Rebounding and ball security, McGraw said, are the two areas where the Irish can perform better than they did at Savage Arena.

Although they outrebounded their first two opponents by an 84-53 margin, the Irish permitted 13 offensive boards to Arizona State and 10 to Robert Morris.

Notre Dame had 13 turnovers in the opener – neither an exceptionally low nor alarmingly high total – but mistakes were a bigger issue in the round of 32. As Notre Dame matched a season high with 22 turnovers, the Sun Devils scored 21 points off them.

“We need to contain the ball and rebound better,” McGraw said. “Taking care of the ball, that was uncharacteristic of us. We generally have more assists than turnovers.”

Things start to get a little more serious now.

Oklahoma State is a rising program under coach Jim Littell, and should the Irish survive that test, either No. 2 seed Baylor or third-seeded Kentucky will loom in the Elite Eight.

“A long way to go,” Irish guard Kayla McBride said. “Teams are going to give us their best shot. We have a target on our back as the No. 1 seed in this bracket. We have to be ready for anything.”

Notre Dame is making its 12th Sweet 16 appearance, but none of the previous 11 has felt quite like this one.

In the midst of an unbeaten season, the Irish will see the familiar sightlines of Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s special,” McBride said. “It’s very comforting knowing that you’re going to be at home in your own locker room.”

McBride and fellow seniors Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker could celebrate their fourth Final Four berth on campus.

“To be in South Bend, to be able to give back to the fans that give so much for us, is going to be great,” Achonwa said.