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NCAA Women’s Tournament preview: Notre Dame, DePaul have saved best for last

DePaul's Mart'e Grays, left, shoots as Notre Dame's Jackie Young defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Chicago. | Jim Young/Associated Press

After winning its fifth Big East tournament title in the last six seasons, the DePaul women’s basketball team (26-7) punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the 17th consecutive year, which makes the Blue Demons just one of five teams to accomplish such a feat.

DePaul, a six seed in the Chicago Regional, is riding an 11-game win streak heading into March Madness. It’s high-power offense, led by seniors Mart’e Grays and Ashton Millender and junior Chante Stonewall, has averaged 81.2 points this season, good for seventh in the nation.

After sitting out 2016-17 with a torn Achilles tendon, Grays has been phenomenal over the last two seasons. She leads the team with 14.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. Millender and Stonewall have also played a key role for DePaul, scoring 14.2 and 12.9 points per game, respectively.

DePaul heads off to Ames, Iowa, on Thursday where they’ll play the 11th-seeded Missouri Valley Conference champions, Missouri State, on Saturday. And if history repeats itself, there’s a good chance the Blue Devils will advance. They’re undefeated all-time against the Lady Bears (5-0) and most recently beat them in 2010.

The winner of the DePaul-Missouri State game, which will be televised on ESPN2, will face the winner of the Iowa State-New Mexico State game on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Chicago region’s top-seeded Notre Dame (30-3) has saved its best for last.

The Fighting Irish, who are making their 24th consecutive March Madness appearance, have played their best basketball over the last six weeks and most recently beat fellow No. 1 seed Louisville by 20 points in the ACC Tournament title game. Notre Dame has averaged 96 points over the last nine games and beat every opponent by double digits.

The Irish — who leads the nation in scoring, averaging 89 points per game — are setting themselves up for a position to repeat as national champions. They’ve had an impressive five players consistently scoring on average more than 13 points per game.

Seniors Arike Ogunbowale, who’s averaging 21 points, 3.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds this season, and Jessica Shepard, who’s averaging 16.5 points, 3.1 assists and 9.9 rebounds per game, steer the Irish’s offense.

It’s important to also note that Notre Dame’s last two losses in the NCAA Tournament came at the hands of Stanford, who is the No. 2 seed in Chicago region.

Notre Dame will play No. 16 Bethune-Cookman in South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday. The winner of that game will play the winner of the Central Michigan-Michigan State game before heading to Wintrust Arena for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Other tidbits:

  • Watch out for second-seeded Connecticut. For the first time since 2006, the Huskies are not a No. 1 seed (Louisville is No. 1 for the Albany Regional). Add in losing in the national semifinals the last two seasons and its safe to say coach Geno Auriemma and his squad have a chip on their shoulders this tournament.
  • Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, who was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year, won’t say whether she’ll declare for the WNBA draft as a junior. She’s been vital for the Ducks, who are the No. 1 seed in the viewed as a potential No. 1 pick. broke the NCAA all-time (men’s and women’s) triple-double record earlier this season.