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Underdog Temple Hoping For Breakthrough vs. Irish

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The difference between the Notre Dame and Temple women’s basketball programs might be summed up in the way they celebrated their first-round NCAA tournament victories on Saturday night.

The 10th-seeded Temple Owls went to a local grill for pizza and wings. The No. 2 Fighting Irish got tickets to the hottest show in town, Lady Gaga in concert.

That may be reflected on the court in Monday night’s second-round matchup, when a proven powerhouse with glitz and glamour takes on the underdogs hoping for a breakthrough.

“We’re going in with no All-Americans,” Owls coach Tonya Cardoza said, “players that are not even probably ranked in the top 150 or so.”

Consider the matchup of point guards.

Shey Peddy is a junior-college transfer whose gritty style helped her become Temple’s single-season steals leader in Saturday’s win over Arizona State.

Notre Dame counterpart Skylar Diggins has a bio that puts her in the same company as LeBron James and Dwight Howard as a National High School Athlete of the Year (2009) and a three-time USA Basketball gold medalist.

“She’s a really good point guard, (known) worldwide,” Peddy said. “I have to step up my defense a lot to contain her, but I don’t really try to look at her name or the hype that surrounds her. I just try to play hard defense against her and have fun.”

Last year’s second-round game was anything but fun for Temple. The Owls went up against eventual champion UConn and never had a chance, losing 90-36.

Temple (24-8) has advanced to the second round five times but never to the Sweet 16.

Notre Dame has appeared in 18 NCAA tournaments and is 8-5 in second-round games, advancing to the Final Four twice and winning it all in 2001.

Under Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, the No. 2-seeded Irish have won 13 consecutive games against current Atlantic 10 teams.

Cardoza doesn’t underestimate what a win Monday would mean to her program.

“When you are seeded 10th and have never gotten past the second round, advancing to the Sweet 16 (would be) like winning a national championship,” Cardoza said. “We feel really good about the win (over ASU). We definitely enjoyed last night, but now we have an opportunity to take this program further than it’s ever been. We’re ready for that challenge.”

So is Notre Dame (27-7), even if the Irish graduated four seniors off a squad that lost in overtime to Oklahoma in the regional semifinals a year ago.

The Irish have the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in Devereaux Peters and the most improved player in Natalie Novosel, nicknamed “Nasty” for her tenacity on defense.

They also have Diggins, a first-team Big East selection after moving to point guard, to fuel an offense that averages 77.8 points a game.

Add in captains Brittany Mallory and Becca Bruszewski, who have grown into leadership roles, and the Irish don’t have too many weaknesses.

“That’s the great thing about this team,” McGraw said. “We lost four starters and came into this season not knowing exactly how we were going to jell. We went very quickly from being an underdog to right back in the hunt.”

The only time Notre Dame is an underdog is when it faces UConn.

“We’re kind of a team that everyone wants to beat,” McGraw admitted. “It’s difficult to play with a target on your back.

While Cardoza worried Sunday about taking the pressure off her guards, McGraw’s treat to Lady Gaga was designed to take the pressure off the entire team.

“It’s something we try to do all year long,” McGraw said, noting the team has visited Busch Gardens on a trip to South Florida and saw a Broadway play last season in New York.

“It’s not a business for them,” McGraw added. “It’s got to be fun. Anytime you can let them have fun, it helps us. I think it helps team chemistry. They’re kids. They need to enjoy what they’re doing. I think it helps keeps the passion.”

It’s a trend McGraw, now in her 24th season, began a few years ago.

“It’s been working and we’ve played pretty well,” said McGraw, who took a pass herself on Lady Gaga. “I think we’ll stick with it.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)