Defense will define unexpected Texas A&M-Notre Dame final
INDIANAPOLIS -- Texas A&M coach Gary Blair is a superstitious sort. He carries two lucky coins in his left pocket: a 1945 Mercury Head dime for the year he was born and a Texas A&M logo coin given to him by associate head coach Vic Schaefer. Prior to every Aggies game, Blair draws a plus sign in black ink on his hand as a reminder to be positive with his players. He also makes sure he has four two-dollar bills with him at all times. If his team loses a game, he will exchange two of the two-dollar bills for a fresh set. If his team loses two games in a row, he will replace all four bills.
Asked to explain Blair's superstitious nature, senior guard Sydney Colson posited this theory about her coach: "I think A&M is built on tradition and he just wants to do what has gotten him to this point thus far," she said. "I guess you can say it is working, so I'm all for it."
It's working, all right. Texas A&M (32-5) and Notre Dame (31-7) meet Tuesday night at Conseco Fieldhouse in what many would consider an improbable final. It is the first time in the history of the championship that a pair of No. 2 seeds are meeting, and just the second time that there is not a No. 1 seed in the title game. Notre Dame, which had back-to-back wins against No. 1 seeds Tennessee and Connecticut, last won a championship in 2001. Texas A&M is playing in its first title game.
"I think it's good to see two new faces in the Final Four championship game," said Blair, who loves to talk about as much as he loves his Diet Cokes. "Don't take anything away from what [Tennessee coach] Pat [Summitt] and [UConn coach] Geno [Auriemma] and [Stanford coach] Tara [VanDerveer] have accomplished. But right now for our sport to grow, we need Texas A&M and Notre Dame in this game."
The game is likely to turn on two factors. First of all, can the Texas A&M backcourt of Colson and Sydney Carter -- a pair of hellacious on-ball defenders -- disrupt the flow of Notre Dame sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins, who was transcendent against UConn with 28 points and six assists on 10-of-14 shooting. "[Carter's] a great defender on the ball, has a great mid-range jump shot and very good speed," Diggins said. "She's going to be up in your face and a pest on defense. We have to make sure we protect the ball."
The other looming question is whether Notre Dame has an answer for Texas A&M All-America senior Danielle Adams, a 6-foot-1 forward who loves dragging interior defenders far away from the post. She's averaged 22.1 points this season, but had trouble with Stanford's athletic and rangy frontcourt players. That won't be the case against Notre Dame senior center Becca Bruszewski, who is a tough defender but the same height as Adams. Adams weighed more than 280 pounds when she arrived at Texas A&M two years ago but has since dropped more than 40 pounds thanks to regular workouts with Aggies strength and conditioning coach Jennifer Jones. She is a relentless scorer and mentally tough after enduring plenty of yahoos on the road over the last two years. (Against Kansas State, a male fan held up a sign that read "NO. 23 DON'T EAT ME.")
"We haven't really faced anybody like her," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "That's going to be a challenge for our defense. Our guards, they all have tough matchups. It's going to be a defensive battle."
Indeed, both teams are serious about defense. Notre Dame is more physical on the perimeter, while Texas A&M relies on speed in fronting the posts and pressuring the ball. The Irish forced the Huskies into one of their poorest shooting performances of the season (UConn shot 42 percent from the field), while Texas A&M's relentless ballhawking forced Stanford into 22 turnovers in its 63-62 semifinal win. If Diggins can handle the pressure from Texas A&M, look for Notre Dame shooting guard Natalie Novosel to have a big night. The senior guard and ND's leading scorer (15.0 ppg) had 18 second-half points against UConn and can be a lethal shooter when she's going good.
The two Sydneys make Texas A&M go and are as ebullient away from the court as they are defensive terrors on it. The 5-8 Colson (who boasted a Big 12-best 6.2 assists per game) has won 114 games during her career -- the most in any four-year span at the school -- and is the emotional glue of her team. Carter, a 5-6 junior, operates on the wing (averaging 10.6 points) and is the best defender on the team, perhaps the best perimeter defender in the nation.
"I try to get into that mindset that I've got to play taller and I've got to be smarter than that person I'm guarding," Carter said. "I have to be the aggressor on the defensive end, especially if they're an aggressive offensive player. I've got to outdo them on the defensive end."
She'll likely be matched up with Diggins, whose star is rising both on and off the court. After getting tweet shout-outs from rapper Lil Wayne ("DC was beautiful. Kongrats to @skydigg4,my wife. Now bring it home baby") and singer Chris Brown ("Skylar Diggins ... She's a cutie @skydigg4 congrats beautiful.") this week, Diggins is now being followed on Twitter by more than 42,000 accounts. She started the NCAA tournament with 6,000 followers. ("I didn't know Lil Wayne and I were married," Diggins joked on Monday.)
It's unlikely the 65-year-old Blair is too familiar with Lil Wayne's catalogue, but he and a posse of 13 friends and family did roll into a downtown Steak 'n Shake at 1 a.m. Monday morning to order orange freezes and steak burgers. Hours after he enjoyed one kind of steak, he spoke about the stakes that really matter. "This team has got to seize the moment," Blair said.
His players look ready to do so.
And thus, my prediction: