- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Notre Dame, this region's No. 1 seed, was so good on Sunday afternoon the Irish almost made themselves an afterthought heading into Tuesday's NCAA regional final against the No. 2 seed Maryland Terrapins.
You see, there wasn't much thought given to Notre Dame's semifinal win, so early was the outcome decided. The Irish dominated No. 5 seed St. Bonaventure, eventually winning 79-35. You didn't even have to watch the game to picture what was happening: Notre Dame defensive stop, Notre Dame bucket.
But Maryland? In one of the better games played this tournament, the Terps knocked out the defending national champs, the Texas A&M Aggies, 81-74, after trailing by 18 points in the first half, 12 in the second. Maryland stayed steady, hitting the glass and pushing the ball upcourt, and finished the game on a 21-4 run.
Tuesday's final (ESPN/ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET) will be a clash of powerhouse programs -- it always is this time of the tournament -- that both believe themselves destined for this year's Final Four.
One of them is wrong.
Three keys to the game
1. Glass domination: To beat Maryland, the Irish will need to limit the Terps' second-chance points. It's almost as if Maryland doesn't need its first offensive set to be effective, so often do the Terps end up scoring on putbacks and kept-alive plays. The Terps are long, lanky and athletic, and they know that offensive rebounding gives them a distinct advantage. Forward Tianna Hawkins and reserve Lynetta Kizer have come up big inside for Maryland, complementing ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas, who seems to always get hers.
2. End to end: To beat the Irish, Maryland will need to make its share of the full-court hustle plays. The Terps are excellent in transition, but Notre Dame has a certain end-to-end, side-to-side, full-court pursuit of the basketball that can wear down even the best opponents. That effort is led, of course, by guards Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel. The Terps must limit any hustle, break-down plays that go in Notre Dame's favor. Because it's in these moments that the Irish can reel off some dagger-like 3-pointers (Notre Dame is shooting 34.4 percent from beyond the arc this season).
3. The hot hand: Maryland coach Brenda Frese keeps all of her practices open to anyone who wants to watch, mostly because she understands that it's not the plays, but the players, who win games. Tuesday's final is an even match of teams with their own strengths and weaknesses. Certain X's and O's must be considered for each team to win this game. But at this point in the tournament, no scheme or defensive set will win the game. It'll come down to whether Thomas and teammate Laurin Mincy light up the scoreboard, or whether Diggins and Novosel light it up for Notre Dame.
Pick: Maryland will win because sophomores Thomas and Mincy are ready to make it happen.
Tuesday's regional final will come down to whether Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel can outshine Maryland sophomores Laurin Mincy and Alyssa Thomas.