Robert Morris basketball players Artemis Spanou and Kelly Hartwell, both seniors, hug the NEC Championship trophy after beating Saint Francis in the championship game at the Sewell Center at Robert Morris University earlier this week.
By Ryan Autullo / Block News Alliance
TOLEDO, Ohio — As Mercer crashed the NCAA men’s tournament Friday with a stunning upset of third-seed Duke, a women’s team some 600 miles away lounged on couches glued to a TV.
Unbeaten Notre Dame was impressed.
This is March Madness, where the unexpected becomes commonplace and obscure programs such as Mercer can play a virtual road game in Raleigh, N.C., and upend one of the storied programs in the game.
“Every team’s fighting for a chance to prove others wrong,” Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd said, relaxing in a locker room at University of Toledo’s Savage Arena.
Robert Morris hopes to be Mercer-ish today.
The 16th-seed Colonials caught an unenviable first-round draw in Notre Dame, a remarkably talented team averaging 25-point wins throughout an unbeaten season.
This David vs. Goliath matchup will unfold at 1:30 p.m. today in the Notre Dame Region.
“The Mercer win totally gives us confidence seeing what a smaller team can do,” Robert Morris guard Ashley Ravelli said. “We have been practicing all this week without fear, and I’m guessing [Mercer] did the same thing.”
Only once, in 2006, has a No. 16-seeded women’s team beaten a No. 1 with Harvard pulling off the unthinkable against Stanford.
Colonials coach Sal Buscaglia, whose team is playing in the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons, called Notre Dame “not a great team but an elite team,” and hinted the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider than in the men’s game.
The Fighting Irish rolled through their inaugural season in the ACC with double-digit victories in 30 of 32 games. Over a 10-day period ending with the ACC title game, the Irish crushed four top-15 teams by the following point totals — 25, 24, 35, and 16.
“It’s going to be a challenge, for sure,” said Robert Morris forward Artemis Spanous, whose 19.8 points per game are the most of either team.
Second-ranked Notre Dame matches Connecticut for Division I’s longest win streak with 49. The rivals avoided each other in the regular season — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Connecticut wouldn’t or couldn’t make a meeting happen — and are everyone’s picks to meet in the title game April 8 in Nashville, Tenn.
To advance to their third final in four years, the Irish will lean on a backcourt consisting of the ACC player of the year and her teammate who might be even better.
Loyd, a 5-foot-10 sophomore averaging a team-high 18.5 points, was the top senior shooting guard in Division I two years ago and has not disappointed. This national freshman of the year a season ago has enhanced her game as an encore, helping the Irish offset the graduation of Skylar Diggins, who was widely regarded as Division I’s top player a season ago. Loyd, who has scored in double figures in every game, contributes 6.2 rebounds.
ACC player of the year Kayla McBride (17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds) and 6-3 forward Natalie Achonwa (14.1, 7.4) pose further issues for the Colonials.
“Notre Dame is fun to watch,” Buscaglia said. “But not fun to watch when you’re going to play them.”
Ryan Autullo is a reporter for The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Ryan Autullo: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 and Twitter @AutulloBlade. The Block News Alliance consists of the Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky.
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