RMU women not awestruck by heavily favored Irish

Ralph N. Paulk
| Friday, March 21, 2014, 11:52 p.m.

TOLEDO, Ohio — Robert Morris coach Sal Buscaglia understands the heights the Colonials must reach to derail the national championship aspirations of second-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame.

The Colonials overcame a sluggish stretch midway through the season to capture the Northeast Conference tournament title. Now, they have high hopes of advancing past the first round of the NCAA Women's Tournament.

“We know there's going to be a lot of adversity, but we have to stick together,” senior forward Kelly Hartwell said. “We have to play within ourselves and trust we can compete.”

The 16th-seeded Colonials (21-11) will begin their improbable quest Saturday when they face top-seeded Notre Dame (32-0) in a first-round game at Savage Arena. In this David vs. Goliath matchup, the Colonials appear mere cannon fodder against a Notre Dame team that is seemingly destined to rendezvous with top-ranked Connecticut at the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn.

While Buscaglia is concerned how his young team — including three freshman starters — will handle the tournament pressure, the Colonials seemed upbeat and confident Friday.

“You have to believe you can compete,” Buscaglia said. “It's the message we've been driving home all week. We are a mid-major program with three freshmen and one sophomore going against a major powerhouse. Our kids haven't faced anything like this.”

The Irish, though, haven't faced a team quite like Robert Morris. It's loaded with international players who have added smarts and grit to a program trying to claw its way to prominence.

“We have to play the style of game we've played all year,” Artemis Spanou, the NEC Player of the Year, said. “We have to stay together and play our game. The mentality has to be to play hard, and that's what we've focused on the past six months. We have to do the things we can do.”

The Irish are bigger and faster, which enables them to do most everything well. Their bench includes Mt. Lebanon product Madison Cable, who averages 5.4 points and 3.3 rebounds.

The Irish also present a matchup nightmare in All-American guard Jewell Loyd. Loyd and backcourt mate Kayla McBride average 36 points and 12 rebounds — a numbers advantage that troubles Buscaglia.

“This is going to be a major challenge,” said Buscaglia, who is making his fourth NCAA Tournament appearance. “This Notre Dame team is a premier team with no weakness.

“Notre Dame can go eight deep off their bench. We have to make them do things they aren't accustomed to doing. We have to bring our A-plus, plus game. We have to hit shots, and we can't be afraid.

“Obviously, we've done our homework for them just as we do other teams. But in nearly 40 years of coaching, my teams have never played a better team — ever.”

The Colonials' only chance at victory, it seems, is to minimize the effectiveness of Notre Dame's guards.

“We have had great guard play as long as we've been here but especially the past few years with Skylar Diggins,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Now with Michaela (Mabrey) and Jewell, we have the best backcourt in the nation.”

Still, Spanou insists the Colonials aren't in awe.

“It's going to be a challenge for sure,” said Spanou, who had 30 points and 20 rebounds in the conference tournament final against St. Francis (Pa.). “We managed to stay together during the tough times this season, and it made us tougher mentally.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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