Thursday, March 27
Updated: March 28, 3:37 AM ET
Boilers trying to spoil Big East block party
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
Connecticut vs. Boston College | Purdue vs. Notre Dame
The East's regional semifinals look like the Big East tournament, as three of the league's teams -- Connecticut, Boston College and Notre Dame -- each reached the round of 16.
Here's how we see Sunday's Sweet 16 games shaking out in the East:
(1) Connecticut vs. (5) Boston College
Tipoff: Noon (ESPN)
Records: Connecticut 33-1, Boston College 22-8
Series history: UConn leads the series 32-12, including an 83-75 win at Boston College on Feb. 8. The Eagles' last win over the Huskies came on Jan. 23, 1999, when BC won 78-66. UConn is 3-2 in the series on neutral courts. The Huskies have won eight straight games in the series, including five wins since Diana Taurasi stepped on campus. She has never scored less than 14 points against BC, and is averaging 17.8 points with a pair of 22-point performances against the Eagles.
How they got here: UConn, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, crushed Boston University 91-44 in the first round. Things weren't as easy in the second as the Huskies, who trailed most of the first half (including by two points the break) and needed a career-high 35 points from Taurasi to pull away from TCU for an 81-66 win. Boston College's road to the round of 16 was even tougher. The Eagles beat Old Dominion 73-72 in Norfolk, Va., in the first round, then upset fourth-seeded Vanderbilt 86-85 in overtime in the second. Junior guard Amber Jacbos hit last-second, game-winning shots in both contests.
The skinny: Boston College's road to the round of 16 has been fantastic, and the Eagles deserve to be part of the regional semifinals. But BC gets a tough draw, and it would be easier for the Eagles to have to play someone else rather than face UConn again.
That's not to say Boston College doesn't have what it takes to pull off another upset. But it's always tough mentally to face a team you haven't had any recent success against. And while BC's first two opponents probably didn't know much about Amber Jacobs or Becky Gottstein, UConn coach Geno Auriemma has seen plenty of this team and knows the Eagles nearly as well as he knows his own players. So there are no secrets between these two league rivals, and again, that plays into the hands of the team that has been on the winning end of the series.
The Eagles have played great team basketball up to this point, getting many people involved offensively. The Eagles are smart, move the ball well, play hard and play with passion. I've enjoyed every minute of their games, and what their performances in the first two rounds were very special for women's basketball.
Jacobs has put in the best individual performances of the tournament so far, hitting the winning shot in the waning seconds of two straight games. That is just clutch.
However, I don't see this game going down to the wire, or Jacobs getting the chance to hit another buzzer beater. Taurasi and Connecticut are battle-tested and have the experience and skills to get past this game. And though Taurasi and freshman Ann Strother get most of the attention, Barb Turner and Jessica Moore also hare playing unbelievably well right now. UConn really didn't have a big, legit post last season; the Huskies had some great 4s who hung around the 5 area. But Turner has some really nice post moves and a good presence underneath, and she and Moore are great rebounders.
Edge: Connecticut. As we've said before, Auriemma has put in his best coaching performance this season, and it's not going to end yet.
(2) Purdue vs. (11) Notre Dame
Tipoff: 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Records: Purdue 28-5, Notre Dame 21-10
Series history: Purdue leads the series 11-4, and is 2-1 on neutral courts. Though Notre Dame beat the Boilers 68-66 in the 2001 NCAA title game, Purdue has won four of the last six meetings, including two straight since that clash in the national championship two years ago. Most recently, the Boilers beat Notre Dame 71-54 at the Joyce Center on Jan. 4. In that contest, Purdue had 26 offensive rebounds to Notre Dame's 24 defensive rebounds, and the Irish's Courtney LaVere had 23 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in a losing effort.
How they got here: Purdue beat Valparaiso 66-51 in the first round, then followed it up with an 80-62 win over Virginia Tech. The Irish pulled off a couple of upsets, beating sixth-seeded Arizona 59-47 in the first round. Notre Dame then put in one of the best defensive performances in the second to upset third-seeded Kansas State 59-53 in Manhattan, Kan., which snapped the Wildcats' 22-game home winning streak.
The skinny: The fact that the Irish are here speaks volumes. They are the lowest seed (No. 11) to reach the Sweet 16, and did so despite two poor performances by their leading scorer, sophomore forward Jacqueline Batteast, who is 2-for-26 so far in the tournament.
But this isn't the first time Notre Dame -- this year's Cinderella -- has overcome adversity. The Irish lost five of eight games in January, falling to 3-4 in Big East play. But that's all in the past. Notre Dame is playing some great basketball right now, and the team's tenacious defense -- and its ability to perfectly execute the game plan coach Muffet McGraw designed -- has kick started this run.
Kansas State has a lot of offensive firepower, but the Irish really neutralized it in the second round. They constantly had people in the lane, and any time Nicole Ohlde caught the ball, she was double- and sometimes triple-teamed from behind, the side and by the opposite guard. Notre Dame also took away K-State's 3-point threats, which is not an easy task.
Freshman Courtney LaVere and sophomore Teresa Borton are some of the best posts in the country. They can catch and score, have good post moves and good bodies in the paint. Then there's Le'Tania Severe, a 5-foot-8 junior guard who's lightning quick and had 17 points (6 of 11), eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in a clutch performance against K-State. Senior Alicia Ratay came up huge in the first round (20 points, 3-for-4 from 3-point range), and freshman Megan Duffy, who hit two very timely 3s against K-State, has been very impressive. She and Severe should look to penetrate more often and pitch it out to Ratay on the perimeter.
The big question is whether Batteast can get going. Her strength is slashing, being around the boards and rebounding. She doesn't often look to hit your traditional jumpers; she tends to score more of her points on putbacks, by slashing and at the foul line.
Purdue's star, Shereka Wright, also struggled a bit offensively last time out, scoring nine points while sinking just 1 of 5 shots. That won't last, and even when she's not scoring, Wright does too many other things to hurt you. She's long and lanky, can play multiple positions and causes mismatch problems all over the place with her athleticism. I like everything about her game at both ends of the floor.
Kristy Curry is a marvelous coach and knows what to do. This team has tournament experience and other players who can hurt you inside (Mary Jo Noon) and out (Erika Valek). Valek, in fact, has had a big impact on this year's success, and after suffering a torn ACL two years ago has made an incredible comeback. She's very tough defensively, and as the team's primary ballhandler, she keeps it simple yet also keeps the opponent off balance.
And that's something Notre Dame will try to do to the Boilers. Purdue needs to enter this game knowing that 1) it's not going to get many open looks, and 2) Notre Dame is going to be very feisty. And since the Irish are so good at changing their defenses on you, Valek must be able to read the switching defenses coming at her, whether it's man-to-man or a zone. Curry must also be sure to communicate with Valek on the court to try and counter the Irish game plan.
One need-to-know fact: Only six teams seeded 11th or lower have advanced to the round of 16. None has ever won in that round.
Edge: On paper, Purdue should win this one. But Notre Dame is riding a huge wave of momentum. The key for Purdue is to counter and respond to Notre Dame's defense, which kept K-State scoreless for nearly 13 minutes. And keep in mind that while everyone was quick to point out that this is a rematch of the 2001 NCAA title game, these are completely different teams. Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey, Katie Douglas and Camille Cooper are long gone.
What they're saying about the Midwest
"Boston College runs a real solid defense. But UConn right now is really cooking on all cylinders. (Diana) Taurasi is making her team a lot better." -- ESPN analyst Nell Fortner
"Notre Dame played a tremendous game (against Kansas State). If you're going to beat this potent offense, then you have to be the aggressor. That's what Notre Dame and Muffet McGraw did. They imposed their defense." -- ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman
"BC plays great team basketball and has excellent penetration and kick. When the stakes get high, they play a motion offense, and that's what was so impressive about BC (on Monday against Vanderbilt)." -- ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman
"I think our posts have really carried us through most of the year. And while our guards have individually had some great games, I think collectively these past two games, we have played well. All three of them have played as well as they can play at the same time, and I think that's been a big difference for us." -- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw
"I don't think it's harder to play a team that beat you. I think you have a tendency to be overconfident when you beat a team. ... So we have not talked about (our loss to Purdue in January). We are not going to watch any film of it, either." -- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw
"I kind of like being the underdog in this situation because going into games, they give you nothing to lose and I think we are coming together as a team and playing together. Just because we are the 11th seed, we are not supposed to win; I think that motivates us to play harder and compete out there." -- Notre Dame freshman guard Megan Duffy
"There are other parts of the game that I can help the team out other than scoring, and I've tried to be a better defender and rebounder. ... I need a short memory and I have to forget those two games, and hopefully things will work out a little better this weekend." -- Notre Dame sophomore forward Jacqueline Batteast
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.