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Robert Morris women not intimidated by Notre Dame

| Thursday, March 16, 2017, 8:12 p.m.
Robert Morris' Megan Smith puts up a shot during practice for the Colonials' NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind.
Robert Morris Head Coach Charlie Buscaglia talks to his players during a practice at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind. Thursday, March 16, 2017 in advance of the first round of the NCAA Division 1 Women's Basketball Tournament hosted by Notre Dame. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — They were barely more than strangers four years ago when Anna Niki Stamolamprou made an unexpected promise.

Upon finding out from the man who was recruiting her to play basketball about 5,000 miles away at Robert Morris had lost a championship ring shortly after landing in Thessalonki, Greece, Stamolamprou told Charlie Buscaglia she'd win him another one.

The 5-foot-9 Greek guard, who evolved into one of the program's most elite players, delivered in triplicate.

Can she help concoct the unthinkable?

That's what Stamolamprou and the Colonials (22-10) face Friday night at Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion, as they hope to become the second 16th seed in NCAA Tournament history to take down a No. 1.

The second-ranked Irish (30-3) will either be the last opponent Stamolamprou (16.5 points, 5.9 rebounds) faces in her brilliant career or the one to provide her most shocking memory.

Tipoff is scheduled for about 7:30 p.m. in a Lexington Regional first-round matchup. The winner gets the winner of Green Bay (27-5) and Purdue (22-12).

“Our procedures are exactly the same no matter who we're playing,” said Buscaglia, in his first year as Robert Morris coach after serving as father Sal's assistant and top recruiter. “And we go into every game with our hands wide open and a full heart.”

They might not have full health, though. Senior guard Janee Brown is hampered by a high ankle sprain suffered in Robert Morris' final regular season game Feb. 27 against Farleigh Dickinson.

“If there's any chance possible that she could go, she'll go,” Buscaglia said Thursday. “To see somebody go down and see the work ethic she's shown to get back has been second to no other player I've ever seen. She's been a very big inspiration.”

If Brown plays, she will go against childhood friend Lindsay Allen. Notre Dame's all-time assists leader was an elementary school classmate of Brown's in Mitchellville, Md.

The two were high school rivals in the Washington, D.C., area.

Stamolamprou also remembers Allen. Robert Morris drew Notre Dame in another No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchip in the 2014 tournament. Notre Dame won, 93-42, in Toledo, Ohio.

“It's going to be a completely different game,” Stamolamprou said.

Actually, Allen is the only regular left from that Final Four team. Junior Brianna Turner, a 6-3 forward, leads a balanced and deep Irish scoring attack at 15.6 points. As a team, Notre Dame ranks third nationally in field goal percentage (.495) and fourth in 3-point shooting (.394).

“They're a great team,” Buscaglia said. “There's a lot that concerns me about them, but like any other team, there are things you see that you can attack.”

For Notre Dame, the blotch on its statistical résumé is 3-point defense. The Irish rank 313th out of 345 teams nationally (.345). Robert Morris is 51st nationally in 3-point shooting (.348).

Buscaglia said the Colonials' strongest asset, though, is their resilience.

“This team has overcome a lot of adversity this year,” he said. “That's been one of the biggest things I'm proud of. We've lost starters. We've lost players through injuries and illness and things like that.

“And they've not always won the game, but they've gone out there and competed. So as much as Notre Dame presents to us, I expect my team to go out there and fight.”

Eric Hansen is a freelance writer.

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