- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Editor's note: Nancy Lieberman is breaking down the best first-round game in each regional. Here, the ESPN analyst examines the Dallas Regional's most intriguing matchup.
Notre Dame has come a long way in four months. Lacking experience, with just two seniors on the roster, the Irish were picked to finish 11th in the Big East -- and those votes were cast before they lost their top returning scorer from 2005-06 to a preseason knee injury.
But instead of finishing toward the bottom or even the middle of the conference, Notre Dame ended up in fifth place and scored a No. 9 seed on Selection Monday. It's the 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Irish.
Overachievers? You bet. But while there's no question Notre Dame is a young team, its maturation this season has been impressive. The key to its success is an offense that is much-improved compared to last season. The Irish, who shoot almost 43 percent from the field and love to run, are averaging 71 points per game this season. It's their highest average in six years -- since Notre Dame won the 2001 national championship. With two players in double figures -- Charel Allen (17.0 ppg) and Ashley Barlow (10.8) ppg) -- and two others not too far behind, the Irish are averaging almost seven more points than they did in 2005-06.
As usual, Notre Dame's defense helps make the Irish offense more productive. The Irish force 20.7 turnovers -- which led the Big East this season -- and also make 10.6 steals per game.
Allen can score in a variety of ways and likes to slash and take the defender off the dribble. Breona Gray is the biggest 3-point threat, hitting a team-high 31 treys, and is coming off some stellar performances in the Big East tournament. Barlow has started only three games but is a super sub who could be on the court at tip-off at many other programs.
The Irish are about eight players deep, but they're really diverse -- save for a 28 percent 3-point percentage -- with good balance. They like to push tempo, and they have a great, experienced coach in Muffet McGraw.
The same can be said for Cal. Second-year coach Joanne Boyle already has brought a lot of success to Berkeley. The Bears boast an incredible post tandem in sophomores Devanei Hampton and Ashley Walker. Walker leads Cal in scoring (17.2 ppg), rebounding (8.5 rpg), field-goal percentage (53.6) and blocks (1.35 bpg). But Hampton (16.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg) isn't far behind in any of the categories, and she unseated two-time defending Pac-10 Player of the Year Candice Wiggins at Stanford for the league's top individual honor. Yes, Wiggins was probably docked some votes because she sat out a few games to nurse injuries, but Hampton is certainly deserving.
One of the most impressive things about Cal is how well it has played since losing last season's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, point guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, to a torn ACL just 10 games in. Natasha Vitale, one of two freshmen in the backcourt, has stepped in and done a nice job. But let's face it -- everything runs inside-out for Cal with the super sophomores in the frontcourt.
The Bears, who beat Stanford on the road for their first win in the series in nearly six years, are starter-heavy and go only seven players deep.
Who wins? Both teams hail from solid conferences and played good opponents this season. It's going to come down to whether Notre Dame's defense can neutralize Cal inside and whether the Bears can run with the Irish when they push tempo (or slow them down enough). I'm going with Notre Dame. Neither team has played in two weeks.
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.
The most intriguing first-round matchup in Dallas? It's the eighth-seeded Cal Bears against No. 9 seed Notre Dame.