Irish, Blue Devils could meet in semifinals

For the first time since 1996, and only the second time in school history, Notre Dame will compete in the Preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT).

The Irish will host Illinois State on Nov. 12 at the Joyce Center in the opening round of the 16-team event. Second-round games will be played on Nov. 14, followed by Nov. 17 semifinals and the championship scheduled for either Nov. 20 or 21. All games will be played on home campuses, which are determined after each round.

The Irish are one of nine teams in this year's Preseason WNIT field that qualified for postseason play last season, joining Arizona, Duke, Middle Tennessee, Nebraska, Ohio State, Rice, Saint Joseph's (Pa.) and South Florida.

Notre Dame and Duke are in the same half of the bracket, and could clash in the semifinals. Ohio State and Arizona are on the opposite half of the bracket. In the final ESPN/USA Today coaches poll last season, Duke was ranked fifth, while Notre Dame was 20th. Ohio State also received votes.

Notre Dame returns four starters from last year's 21-11 squad that advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year (and sixth time in the past eight seasons). The Irish enter the 2004-05 campaign with a 20-game home winning streak, the eighth-longest active run in the nation and the second-longest in school history.

"We are very excited to be selected and even more thrilled to be awarded a home game in the first round," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for us to open the season in front of our great fans against a high quality opponent."

Notre Dame last played in the Preseason WNIT eight years ago, advancing to the semifinals with wins over Kent State (66-41) and then-No. 6 Iowa (61-50). Following a 72-59 loss to third-ranked Tennessee in the semifinals, the Irish rebounded to defeat No. 8 NC State 64-53 in the consolation game. Katryna Gaither earned a spot on the Preseason WNIT all-tournament team after making a tournament-record 42 field goals in the four-game set (a record that still stands). Notre Dame went on to log a 31-7 record in 1996-97, advancing to its first NCAA Final Four.

The Irish hope to continue the Big East's run of success in the Preseason WNIT. The conference's teams have reached the semifinals six times in the 10-year history of the tournament, with Connecticut winning titles in 1997 and 2001. Last season, Rutgers made its second trip to the Preseason WNIT finals, bowing to Texas Tech 73-45.

Arizona will host Saint Mary's (Calif.) in first-round action. The Wildcats, who went 14-0 at home last year and currently boast the third-longest home winning streak in the nation, have won 27 straight games at the McKale Center.

The 2003-04 Wildcats went 24-9 overall and 14-4 in the Pac-10, tied for the program's best conference record. Arizona tied Stanford for the regular-season title, earning the program's first conference championship, and made its second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

The team tied or broke 36 school records, including best home record, most field goals made in a season (919) and most individual rebounds in a season (Shawntinice Polk, 339).