The Norfolk Regional Finals are not until tomorrow night (Tuesday at 7pm ET on ESPN), but this afternoon was the press conferences for the two teams that will fight for the chance to cut down the nets and head to the Final Four in New Orleans.
Those two teams are Duke and Notre Dame, the top two seeds in the region. Both team’s starting five, along with the head coaches were in attendance.
The best quote of the two sessions came from Coach P, when she was asked what winning a game that you are not supposed to feels like: “It tingles.” The follow up was something like, what does Duke need to do to make you tingle tomorrow night? “We’ve got to slow them down. They’re a scoring machine…Do it across the board so that no particular player has a big game. It’s a team thing. They’re an excellent rebounding team too. They’ve been plus-17 and -18, they’ve been up on the boards. Those combined, that’s going to be quite a task for us to do physically. But if we can do that, then the game will become more of a possession game and that’s exactly what we want. Like I said, we can only prepare for it now and then get out there and see what we can do.”
The Duke players took questions first during their time period. They were Haley Peters, Richa Jackson, Elizabeth Williams, Tricia Liston, and Alexis Jones.
Duke lost to UConn by thirty points (though it was a close game at the half) and ND beat the Huskies three times this season. Everyone expects the Irish to roll over Duke. The players were asked about the UConn loss:
Jones: “I think we lost our energy and our poise. We really didn’t stay focused on each other. That was the beginning of the season and I think we have really come a long way from the UConn game. We’ve gotten better every single game that we have played so far. We have learned from our mistakes and we keep getting better.”
Liston: “Every team is different. You may match up well against one team but differently against another. I do not think you can compare our game to any game that Connecticut played against Notre Dame because it is a completely different comparison. But looking back on that game, we have learned from our mistakes and have really grown together. We have progressed from that game and have gotten better.”
Williams was asked about her matchup against ND big Natalie Achonwa: ”
“Our game plan is to play inside out. We definitely want to get to the foul line early and be able to penetrate the gaps…She knows how to post up strong on the blocks. My main focus is to get her out of position and keep the ball out of her hands when she is at the high post.”
Williams also talked about how the experience of being in the Elite 8 can help tomorrow night: “We have learned that we need to play a full 40-minute game. In the past, we have gotten away with only playing for a half and not staying focused throughout the whole game. So for us, it will be our ability to play through 40 minutes or however long it takes.”
The players were asked about how the team has improved over the season:
Peters (who jumped on the question): “Definitely our defensive intensity and focus have greatly improved. We have really focused on the details of what we want to shut down on the other team. I think our communication defensively has been much improved lately as well.”
Liston: “Our ability to fight back from adversity. Like in our game against Oklahoma State we had to come back from a deficit. Also being faced with situations whether in a game or off the court where we have been challenged mentally and physically. I think this team is really strong and has built up the resilience to really come together to fight back against whatever is thrown at us.”
Liston answered the question about being the underdog tomorrow night: “I definitely think that most people are picking Notre Dame but I think that gives us a little bit of an edge. We really have nothing to lose in this game; there is no pressure on us. No one thinks we can do this besides ourselves. I think it is a source of motivation to go out and prove to ourselves and everyone else that we belong here. We have worked hard and everything we have done to this point in the season has prepared us for this game. This is an opportunity to go out and play loose and hopefully come out on top.”
Coach P then took questions once the players exited. One of which included playing the role of underdog: “I think what really matters is just what we do together as a team. I think all the projections are for fans, and we’re not fans. People can project and say what they think will happen, and that’s okay. That makes it fun for the fans. I think a great team is a team that doesn’t have any fan mentality in them whatsoever. Just simply wants to execute what we need to execute and what we need to do to be successful. In other words, a team that gets absorbed by the film, gets absorbed about what the assignments are and really gets into that piece of it, those teams tend to advance because they just seem like they’re impervious. They’re just completely not part of that bubble, the fan bubble. They’re in their own bubble and those are usually the ones that end up playing for a national title.”
She talked about the Duke defense: “I’d like to think that we’ve been better overall defensively because we’ve had to be with some very good teams. I’m really pleased to see more aggression in the second half just because the defense is away from the bench. You really gotta create your own momentum at that time guarding very, very good players. I think there’s been some improvement there. This is the area that really hurt us with Chelsea (Gray) being out. The steals, her rebounds, her deflections, and her ability to command our defenses. That’s a lot to lose. That’s like losing our quarterback on the defensive side. Anyway, I think we’re getting better in that area and we’re going to have to be really good because Notre Dame likes to put up a lot of points. They’re very good at that. Hopefully, we can just have a good, strong 40 minutes of not only quarter-court but transition defense, really limiting and making sure we get back, because they’re very good at that.”
And also about ND guard Skylar Diggins and how to guard her: “(Diggins) is a great player. Slow her down, hopefully keeping bodies in front of her and not over-reaching on her. I see a lot of defenders, I don’t know what they’re thinking. They reach a lot. They lunge, which provides her a great opportunity to gap and attack. I think you have to understand that she’s very good. She’ll score points, but if we could have her score points in more difficult fashion. People are going to score points here, a lot of very good players, but it’s how they do it, I think, that is the key. Keeping her off the boards. She likes to rebound. You can’t give some easy things there. She loves that pull-up jumper at the foul line. You gotta get back in transition and be alert to that. She comes off those drag screens beautifully with the post in transition. That’s hard because she’s got momentum, forward-moving, when that occurs. She’s great off screens and she mixes up in the paint, so she’s just a great player. She’ll be a terrific WNBA player, but from our standpoint, it’s gonna take a team effort there. There’s not one person.”
Notre Dame thinks Williams will be a key to the game. Coach P talked about how she can impact a game: “She has this tomahawk block. She can really block. I really like how she expresses herself when she blocks. I’d like that to bleed over into all aspects of her game, including scoring and rebounding because she really goes after that ball. I’m really proud of her. She’s been through a lot. Her injury was severe last year, at this time, when her injury was diagnosed. It took her out of the game for nine months. That’s a long time not to play. To come back now, I still think she’s getting in the groove. I think it’ll be her junior year before you see some of the dominance that she’s capable of, but she’s a special player and she works extremely hard. There aren’t too many limits to what she can do and she’ll be working on increasing her shooting range. It’d be nice to have her shooting three’s as well as posting up on the block but I’m excited for her because obviously there are some really good post players for Notre Dame so there will be nice matchups inside.”
With Notre Dame moving to the ACC, tomorrow night may be the start of a new rivalry for years to come: “I think that’s fantastic and really, really great for the ACC. Really proud of the ACC in terms of how we’ve expanded and the teams that have come in, and the rivalries that will develop. All I can say is it’s absolutely phenomenal for women’s basketball. You’ve got Syracuse and Pitt coming in too. Yeah, I can’t keep up. I’m sorry. I can’t keep up. I just think it’s excellent for women’s basketball. Great teams, great coaches and traditions. We’d like to be the women’s basketball conference. I know it’s all driven by football, I understand that, but it’d be a nice thing if it’s the elite women’s basketball conference that allows everybody to have a good time.”
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