DENVER — Traditionally there has been a huge drop-off in women's college basketball between the top two or three teams in the country and everyone else. Teams like Tennessee and Connecticut and Louisiana Tech seem to dominate every year and win by large margins on their way to national championships.
This year Notre Dame has joined that elite level of teams as the Irish have rolled to a 30-2 record, winning by an average of 23 points per game. They've won their two NCAA tournament games by whopping margins of 49 and 34 points.
Obviously, in tonight's (6 p.m., ESPN-TV) game at the Pepsi Center, Utah is a big underdog against the Irish, who were ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the year and feature two all-Americans, including the women's player of the year, 6-5 center Ruth Riley.
Despite Notre Dame being a heavy favorite, the players and coaches from the two teams are talking like tonight's game will be a toss-up.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw even went so far as to say Utah has the edge defensively, which could be the difference in the game.
"The battle will be who will be able to hold the other team down, and I think they've got the edge there," McGraw said. "They're the best defensive team in the country. I don't think I've ever seen a team play defense as well as they do. They are just a great, great defensive team."
Those are high words of praise, but Utah coach Elaine Elliott believes Notre Dame is just as good defensively, and that the key to the game will be on the offensive end.
"This game isn't going to be in the 50s," she said. "This is the best team we've faced all year, and we're going to have to score. It's not a game we can win with our defense. We're going to have to play an all-around game."
Both the Utah and Notre Dame teams worked out Friday at the Pepsi Center in practices that were open to the public. Later in the afternoon, No. 2 seed Iowa State and No. 3 Vanderbilt held practices. Iowa State and Vanderbilt meet in the second game tonight at 8:30 p.m. for the right to face the Utah-Notre Dame winner Monday night.
The Ute coaches and players are trying to enjoy the experience of their first Sweet 16 and say there is no pressure on them tonight because they aren't expected to win against the powerful Irish.
"We don't have anything to lose, so we might as well go as hard as we can the whole game," said Utah center Lauren Beckman. "We're not content to say we made it to the Sweet 16 and go in there and get blown out. I think we have to be the aggressor. If we come out in awe, there won't be a game."
On the other side, Notre Dame players say there's no way they'll be looking past their opponent from the lightly-regarded Mountain West Conference.
"I've actually heard a lot about Utah and their defense," Riley said. "We kept hearing about how aggressive they are and how hard they play. They led the nation in defense this year, and that is something you really have to look at with them."
"Some people look past them because of their conference," added forward Kelley Siemon. "But I think they are every bit as deserving of being here as anyone else. Utah has a lot of capable players, and we know that. They have been one of the top 15 or 20 teams all year long."
The Irish have five players averaging in double figures, led by Riley, who scores 17.8 per game. Alicia Ratay leads the nation in 3-point shooting at 54.3 percent, while averaging 13 points per game. Niele Ivey, a third-team all-American, averages 12 points and 7 assists per game, while Siemon averages 11.4 ppg and Ericka Haney 11 ppg.
Utah is led by Beckman, who scores 12.5 points per game and Kristina Andersen at 10.2. The Utes' defensive stopper, Amy Ewert, averages 9.6, while Lindsay Herbert averages 8.2 ppg and point guard Kelsey Stireman 5.2 ppg. Lori Red-Castagnetto is the top player off the bench with a 6.8 average.
The Utes utilize their bench more with nine players playing at least 12 minutes per game. However, Notre Dame's McGraw believes her team's depth is underrated.
"I think our bench has come a long way," she said. "They were not there at the beginning of the year. But I think we have eight players that we can put in the game and be confident."
Elliott said the key to the Utes' chances is taking care of the ball and making the best of their shooting opportunities. If the Utes turn the ball over and shoot poorly, they could be in for a long night.
NCAA NOTES: The Utah players and coaches were delayed leaving Salt Lake Thursday night when the plane they were supposed to take was struck by lightning coming in . . . Two years ago, another Mountain West Conference team, Colorado State, made it to the Sweet 16, but lost to UCLA 77-68 . . . A sellout crowd is not expected at the 19,099-seat Pepsi Center. The crowd will likely depend on how many fans come from the four schools involved. Vanderbilt disappointed local fans by knocking off Colorado in last week's second round 65-59.