RALEIGH, N.C. — Maryland is just one step away from its fourth trip to the NCAA women's Final Four, but the task gets even tougher Tuesday night.
Two days after knocking off defending NCAA champion Texas A&M 81-74 at the end of a long comeback, the No. 2 seed Terps (31-4) will take on the team the Aggies beat for the title last season when they play No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-3) for the championship of the Raleigh Regional at 9 p.m. at PNC Arena.
It's similar to the scenarios playing out elsewhere, as for the first time since 2008 the top two seeds made each of the four regional title games.
Maryland, which won its only NCAA title in 2006 under Brenda Frese while Notre Dame was the 2001 champion under current coach Muffet McGraw, leads the all-time series with the Irish 4-1. The Terps are ranked No. 5 in the latest Associated Press poll while Notre Dame is No. 4.
The Terps also were here for the regional in 2009 when the building was called RBC Center, losing the title game to Louisville 77-60.
"Notre Dame does a great job both offensively and defensively," Frese said. "They know how to make good teams look really bad with their style of play. It's going to be a very difficult matchup for us since Notre Dame has four future professional players on its roster, and that's a formula that gives you a great chance to win a national championship."
The 5-foot-9 junior point guard Skylar Diggins, who has a glamour-girl image and more than 160,000 followers on Twitter, leads the Irish's four-guard offense with 16.6 points and 5.7 assists per game, followed by 5-11 senior Natalie Novosel (15.3, 4.0 rebounds), 6-2 senior forward Devereaux Peters (11.9, 9.4) and 5-11 sophomore Kayla McBride (11.6, 4.6).
McGraw, whose team annihilated No. 5 seed St. Bonaventure 79-35 on Sunday by holding the Bonnies to 18.2 percent shooting from the floor, said the Terps' versatile and talented lineup also presents a tough challenge.
"It's impossible to simulate a player like Alyssa Thomas in practice," McGraw said. "She's so hard to guard because she is so long and has a lot of guard skills. She drives the lane hard and helps them break the press. [And] I believe there's always an advantage in playing as the underdog. Going into the Tennessee game last year [a 73-59 win in the regional final in Dayton] we weren't expected to win at all. Maryland is not quite the underdog we were last season, and a lot of people are expecting them to win."
Of course, it's going to be a battle of strength on strength, as ACC Player of the Year and 6-2 sophomore wing Thomas (17.2, 8.0) paces the Terps followed by 6-foot sophomore guard Laurin Mincy (13.4, 4.5), 6-3 junior forward Tianna Hawkins (12.1, 9.2) and 6-4 senior center Lynetta Kizer (11.2, 5.6) who was the ACC's Sixth Player of the Year.
Mincy, who led the Terps with 24 points in the second-round win over Louisville and had 21 points and a game-high 12 rebounds against the Aggies, seems to have saved some of her best basketball for the tournament.
"Notre Dame's defense is really on the ball," Mincy said. "They like to reach in, and they're really scrappy. We're going to have to take care of the ball and be strong when we attack the rim."
Maryland's starting lineup will average over 6-1 to the Irish's 5-11 before Kizer even comes off the bench.
"We will use our length to get on the glass, and we know that gives a lot of teams trouble," Thomas said. "We're able to use our length on defense to create a lot of havoc. We know it's going to be a very physical game. Notre Dame is a physical team in general. We're going to come out and take the hits and give it back to them."