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Aggies, Irish face off for national championship

- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The coaches might not be household names. The players aren't well known _ yet.

The national championship game between Notre Dame and Texas A&M on Tuesday night is a rare showdown in women's basketball, the first time since 2005 that neither Tennessee nor Connecticut has been involved.

No Stanford, either, and no Baylor. No Maya Moore. No Geno Auriemma.

It's all good. Just ask Gary Blair, Texas A&M's entertaining and outspoken coach.

"It's good for story lines," Blair said. "Instead of having Brittney Griner or Maya Moore and Geno, but what's wrong with good old Muffet (McGraw) and Gary and teams that play tremendous team basketball that do not rely on just one player?"

The two schools better known for their play on the gridiron will take the grandest stage in women's basketball in one of the biggest surprises in NCAA tournament history. Even though both are No. 2 seeds, they got here the hard way.

The Irish (31-7) snapped an 0-20 skid against Tennessee in the tournament and then upset Moore and the two-time defending champion Huskies after going 0-3 against their top-seeded Big East rival this year and 0-9 before that. Texas A&M (32-5) advanced by beating Griner and her Baylor teammates after three losses this season, and then upended another top seed in Stanford in the semifinals.

The result is a title game without a top seed for just the second time, and the first since No. 3 seed North Carolina beat No. 4 Louisiana Tech in 1994.

"Somebody said only one person predicted that it was going to be an A&M-Notre Dame matchup out of all the millions of people who do a bracket," Texas A&M guard Sydney Colson said. "I think the fact there have been these upsets is really helping out with women's basketball. I think it will get some of those top-name girls to branch out to other schools and realize it's not just UConn and Stanford and Tennessee that can win national championships."

Notre Dame's sensational sophomore guard Skylar Diggins was one of those girls. She grew up in South Bend and was a die-hard Irish fan who cheered them on as they won their only national championship in 2001.

"I was there, hands on the TV," said Diggins, who was 10 at the time. "If they lost I'd have been crushed."

Diggins led the Irish to back-to-back victories over Tennessee and Connecticut _ the first time a team has ever beaten those two juggernauts in the same NCAA tournament. Amazingly, it's only happened eight times during the same regular season, according to STATS LLC.

"It's awesome," Diggins said. "This team is very proud of itself and we're not done yet."

There are a lot of similarities between that last title run and this one. Notre Dame also beat UConn in the Final Four after losing to the Huskies in the Big East tournament championship game. The Irish's starting point guard, Niele Ivey, was a third team All-America like Diggins was this season.

"I'm enjoying the circle. We had our championship reunion in the fall and the team came in," said McGraw, the Fighting Irish coach. "They presented a ball to this team and said, you know, 'We've won our championship, now it's your turn.'"

Standing in the way is Texas A&M, the national championship newcomer that bullied its way through the tournament behind a relentless defense that didn't allow more than 50 points until Stanford scored 62 on Sunday night.

Offensively, the Aggies rely on Danielle Adams, who became the first All-America in school history. And their defense is fueled by the harassing guards _ Colson and the other Sydney, Sydney Carter.

"A lot of people, I don't want to say they fear our defense, but I think they really respect what we do on the defensive end," Carter said. "And we take so much pride on the defensive end and making people feel uncomfortable and making them do things that they don't want to do."

Colson said she expected a physical game against Notre Dame.

"I think they're just as physical as we are," she said. "And I think it's just going to be an all-out battle."

Colson and Carter will need to contain Diggins to have a chance. With 28 points in the seven-point win over Connecticut, Diggins has become an overnight national sensation. She gained nearly 20,000 new Twitter followers after the victory UConn, helped by a tweet shoutout from rapper Lil Wayne, who has 1.6 million followers.

"It's crazy," she said. "I have a lot of young girls following me and asking how I handle different situations. I have to understand that I'm a mentor and a role model and act as such."

With all the top seeds gone, Texas A&M and Notre Dame both have a chance to seize the moment.

"I think a lot of people were happy to see a different face in the final game," McGraw said. "I think it's great what Connecticut's done for the Big East and for women's basketball, and I think it's also great to have some new teams come in and maybe appeal to a lot more people."

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