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Notre Dame

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Notre Dame’s only goal: Win today

– The pressure of being undefeated can eat at any team, forcing players to live up to an impossible standard or gain a false sense of security.

At 32-0, the second-ranked Notre Dame women’s basketball team begins its NCAA tournament run today as loose as an underdog, shaking off any notion of the spotless record being a burden or distraction.

“I wouldn’t say that there is pressure on us but a sense of excitement because we have the opportunity to do something special,” senior forward Natalie Achonwa said.

Coach Muffet McGraw offers the top-seeded Irish a unique perspective gleaned from her 27 seasons at the school. She relates to Notre Dame’s first opponent – No. 16 seed Robert Morris – because she has coached teams with long odds.

“We’ve been every seed,” McGraw said. “We know what it’s like.”

This season, though, has been unlike any other. The Irish finished the regular season without a loss for the first time in school history.

Observers of the sport are already thinking ahead to a possible national title matchup between Notre Dame and fellow unbeaten Connecticut.

McGraw will entertain no query about that dream showdown.

“We stay focused by not answering questions about the noise and distractions surrounding this whole thing,” she said. “We focus one game at a time. We did it all season long without looking ahead. Now it’s a six-game season and we have to do it again.”

Robert Morris (21-11) is making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance. The Colonials are led by Northeast Conference Player of the Year Artemis Spanou, who averages 19.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game.

“Robert Morris is here for a reason,” Irish guard Kayla McBride said. “They had a great season with great players. We are ready to play. There are always dangers.”

McBride felt Notre Dame kept an edge all season, and the senior seeking her fourth Final Four trip sees no reason that will change now.

A perfect season, after all, is built in 40-minute segments.

“It’s honing in on each game,” McBride said. “We know what our goals are, but we know we can’t get to that without each individual game.”

McBride, Achonwa and fellow senior Ariel Braker set the business-like but familial and determined tone that Notre Dame carries into the Big Dance.

“They make it easier all the time because they’re so smart,” McGraw said. “They’re not robots. They don’t just run from point A to point B. They enjoy playing. They have high IQs.”

McBride doesn’t fear the glare of the spotlight or the target opponents will place on Notre Dame’s back.

“The tournament is still win or go home,” she said. “This team has kept that chip on our shoulder all year. These seniors have been through so much with three Final Fours that it would be good to go out on top.”

cgoff@jg.net

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