SPOKANE, Wash. — The Ducks need just one more win to make it to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
To get there, they’ll need to win the Spokane regional final on Monday night, completing another program first in the process: playing perennial national powerhouse Notre Dame. Monday’s matchup (6 p.m. PT, ESPN) between the No. 1-seeded Irish and No. 2-seeded Ducks will be the first time the two programs have faced each other.
It won’t, however, be the first time that Oregon head coach Kelly Graves has faced the Irish.
“My first NCAA Tournament as a coach was against [Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw], her team, down in Baton Rouge, back in 1997,” Graves said. “We later played when I was at Gonzaga back in 2010, in the 10-11 season… That year they went to the championship game, we went to the Elite Eight.”
Notre Dame’s success that Graves’ detailed is par for the course for the Irish. They’ve appeared in seven of the last eight Elite Eights and went to five straight Final Fours from 2011 to 2015. The last time they missed the NCAA Tournament was in 1995.
On the other end of the spectrum, Oregon is playing in only its second Elite Eight in program history.
Notre Dame (32-3) rallied from a 13-point deficit to knock off No. 4-seeded Texas A&M 90-84 on Saturday to reach its ninth Elite Eight in program history. Junior guard Marina Mabrey scored 25 points and knocked down a career-high seven 3-pointers while fellow junior guard Arike Ogunbowale scored 27 points to help the Irish hold off the Aggies.
Oregon not only has to worry about Mabrey and Ogunbowale, both first-team All-ACC selections, but also 6-4 forward and second-team All-ACC player Jessica Shepard (15.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game). The trio leads a high-powered Irish offense that averages 85.7 points per game, the third-most in the country.
Graves said that on top of limiting those three, the Ducks need to emphasize rebounding and transition defense if they want a chance at beating the Irish.
“We gave up 22 offensive rebounds yesterday,” Graves said. “If we do that tomorrow, we lose.”
While Notre Dame performed well enough this season to win 30 games and earn a No. 1 seed, its success has been rather incredible considering the pieces its missing. The Irish currently have four players out recovering from torn ACLs, including All-American forward Brianna Turner.
Only two Irish reserves played on Saturday, with each totaling eight minutes of game-time. Graves said that Oregon will try to exploit that on Monday but credited Notre Dame for its success amid such an injury-filled season.
“They’ve handled that so well all year long,” Graves said. “I mean, that’s a true testament to some awesome players and a phenomenal coach.”
Oregon’s work is cut out for them with Notre Dame. The Irish spent the entire season in the top six of the AP Poll and played one of the toughest schedules in the country. But the Ducks didn’t reach the Elite Eight on luck alone. They’re looking forward to the matchup with the Irish and feel confident heading into Monday.
“I think once that game starts, it’s anybody’s game,” sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu said. “I think we’re just as talented as they are. So I’m excited to see how we match up with their players. I’m excited to see how we grow.
“I wish the game was today.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris