(AP) – North Carolina A&T didn’t look much like an NCAA Tournament team when it started the season 0-4. Things didn’t look much brighter after a loss at Coppin State in late January dropped the Aggies to 9-10.
That’s when coach Tarrell Robinson realized he might have been putting too much pressure on his squad, the preseason pick to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. He called a meeting to tell his players it was time to relax.
”I told them that we needed to have fun. It doesn’t need to be business. It needs to be fun, and if the wins come with it then that’s what happens,” he said. ”Then the next thing you know you’re winning one, two, three, four games in a row, five games in a row. Then they’re starting to believe in themselves and believe in what we’re trying to get done. That’s when the magic starts.”
The Aggies (19-11) won five in a row and 10 of their last 11 to earn the third NCAA Tournament berth in program history. As the 16th seed, they’ll face Notre Dame (31-1) on Saturday night.
The Irish, seeking their sixth straight Final Four appearance, are the only squad of the four in the South Bend subregional – Indiana and Georgia are the others – that looked like a tournament team all season long. Coach Muffet McGraw didn’t view it like that, though.
”We’ve always been a team that takes care of business at hand one game at a time throughout the season. We’ve played ranked teams, we’ve played unranked teams and we’ve focused on them the same way each game,” she said.
The Irish have won 24 in a row, outscoring opponents 77.0-58.9 in that span, and are 10th in the country with 79.2 points per game on the season.
Notre Dame won its fourth straight conference tournament title, becoming the first team to three-peat in the ACC since North Carolina in 2006-08. It’s a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs for the fifth straight season.
”I don’t think that many people have done that,” tournament MVP Madison Cable said after the Irish beat Syracuse 68-57 on March 6. ”But I think this year we’re kind of looking to take a step further and maybe win the next tournament.”
Cable leads seven Notre Dame players averaging double figures in points with 13.7.
Robinson was an assistant coach at VCU from 2009-12 when Notre Dame associate coach Beth Cunningham was the head coach there. When Robinson took the job at North Carolina A&T in 2012, April McRae and Christina Carter followed. McRae is the leading scorer for the Aggies at 13.3 points and Carter averages 7.4.
Notre Dame is 5-0 as a top seed in first-round games, winning by average of 39.6 points.
The Irish and Aggies have never met.