Even though they followed similar paths, they went years without meeting. But lately, they keep bumping into each other. Notre Dame and Stanford will meet in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years when they face off in the Chicago Region final on Monday night. The winner goes to Tampa Bay for the Final Four and will face UConn on Friday night.
"I do feel like we know their team very well," VanDerveer said Sunday. "They have a tremendous team. Their coaching staff is outstanding. They're just really elite at everything they do." Top-seeded Notre Dame (33-3) beat Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, with Arike Ogunbowale scoring a career-high 34 points to send the Irish to their 10th Elite Eight overall and eighth in the past nine years.
The Cardinal (31-4) outlasted Missouri State 55-46 to advance to the regional final for the 20th time despite shooting a season-low 25 percent in its second-lowest scoring game. That sets up a matchup between marquee programs that were basically strangers until recent years despite their similarities. The two schools often recruit the same players.
Stanford trails only Tennessee and UConn with 13 trips to the Final Four. Notre Dame ranks fifth with eight. McGraw has 920 wins in 37 seasons, with 832 coming at Notre Dame. VanDerveer has 1,067 victories in 40 years — 915 at Stanford. They are part of a small group of coaches with two or more NCAA titles that includes Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Linda Sharp and Kim Mulkey.
"(VanDerveer) is somebody that just is a consistent winner," McGraw said. "She gets pretty good players, but she makes them better. I think she's a great strategist and just has a great mind for the game."
Though they've met quite a bit in the tournament in recent years, Stanford and Notre Dame have only played each other five times, with the Cardinal leading the series 4-1. Stanford won at home in 1990 and on the road in 1991. But the two programs didn't meet again until the 2015 Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City.
The Irish won that game, but Stanford got payback the next two years in Lexington, Kentucky. The Cardinal returned the favor in the 2016 regional semifinals and rallied to beat the Irish in the Elite Eight in 2017.
Stanford erased a 16-point deficit in the second half on the way to a 76-75 victory two years ago. Alanna Smith scored the go-ahead layup with 23 seconds remaining and Erica McCall swatted a last-second drive by Ogunbowale from behind to send Stanford to the Final Four.
"Stuff happens," said Ogunbowale, a senior. "You grow and you learn. I guess it's better to be on the opposite side my junior year of making the shot rather than missing it. ... "You've just kind of got to forget about those things, use it to make you stronger, motivation. You always remember how you felt in that moment and you don't want to feel like that again."
Ogunbowale has done just fine since then, hitting a last-second shot against UConn in the semifinals last year and floating in the winning 3 from the corner to beat Mississippi State in the championship game.
This season, Ogunbowale surpassed Skylar Diggins as Notre Dame's career scoring leader, and she came up big again when the Irish needed it against Texas A&M on Saturday. The guard scored 24 points in the second half, 12 in the final 6:46 to help keep the season going. The Irish also got 24 points and 14 rebounds from Jessica Shepard.
Notre Dame comes in leading the nation in scoring at 89.2 points per game. Stanford will probably look to slow the tempo and try to find its shooting touch after making just 17 of 68 shots. "They have experienced players, and we have played against them a bit, but this is a new team for them and we've got to be ready for this team," VanDerveer said.
She said the Irish are bigger and more physical than they were a few years ago, that they go inside "with a real vengeance." But she still thinks there are things to be learned from those games a few years ago.
"We were clearly an underdog, and I'm really proud of the effort and the confidence that our team played with, and there are things that can be learned from both those games," VanDerveer said. "But it's a new day in terms of who they have playing and how big they are and how physical they are."
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