SPOKANE, Wash. -- The top two seeds in the West region took different paths to their anticipated meeting in Monday's regional final.
While 1-seed Notre Dame needed to rally from a halftime deficit to knock off No. 4 seed Texas A&M 90-84, second-seeded Oregon controlled its matchup against surprising No. 11 seed Central Michigan nearly from the opening tip of the 83-69 win.
Led by dynamic freshman guard Chennedy Carter and the ability of forward Anriel Howard to play bigger than her 5-foot-11 height, the Aggies took it to the Irish in the first half. An 18-2 run that spanned the first and second quarters gave Texas A&M its biggest lead at 31-19, and suddenly it looked like Notre Dame might be in danger of becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in this year's NCAA tournament.
There was no panic on the Irish sideline, however. After all, they had been here before, winning three of the four prior times they trailed at halftime this season.
"We feel like we are poised and can come back," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I thought we showed a lack of discipline in the first quarter. Our shot selection was bad. We didn't get any rebounds. I think we had one offensive rebound at halftime. We weren't getting the ball to Jessica Shepard, which was a big part of our game plan, then we couldn't get any stops.
"We did a lot of things wrong in the first quarter. I thought we righted the ship a little in the second quarter to pull within two, then third quarter, I think we relaxed and played our game."
That meant a lot of scoring from the backcourt duo of Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale. They combined for 16 of the Irish's 23 points in the third quarter, while Notre Dame's defense stiffened and held Texas A&M to 6-of-22 shooting in the period.
On the Sweet 16 stage, Mabrey enjoyed perhaps the best game of her three-year career. She made five 3-pointers in the first half to keep Notre Dame close, finishing with a career-high seven triples to set a school record. Mabrey also handed out a season-high nine assists (one shy of her career high of 10), accounting for half her team's 90 points as either a scorer or a distributor.
Still, the Aggies managed to hang around and were down three with 1:15 left when a more unlikely hero delivered what McGraw called the difference in the game: forward Kathryn Westbeld, who played 32 minutes eight days after suffering a sprained ankle that limited her to 16 minutes in the Irish's win Sunday over Villanova.
With Notre Dame down to seven scholarship players after losing four to ACL tears this season, Westbeld's staying on the court was crucial. But she had attempted just two shots and scored two points before her late jumper (off a Mabrey feed, naturally) extended the Irish lead to five. Texas A&M would get no closer.
"She shows tremendous toughness," McGraw said. "We need her in the game because she does so many things for us that don't show up on the stat sheet. She's a great facilitator for us with the ball in the high post. That huge basket, that free throw jumper she hit, that was the play of the game."
No single play was so decisive in the nightcap. From a seeding perspective, the Ducks caught a break when the Chippewas pulled a pair of upsets en route to the Sweet 16, taking out third-seeded Ohio State. Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who led the only 11 seed to reach the Elite Eight during his time in Spokane as Gonzaga's head coach, wasn't about to take Central Michigan lightly. Neither did his team.
The Ducks jumped on the Chippewas early, utilizing their size advantage against an opponent that starts just one player 6-foot-1 or taller. That meant an opportunity for 6-foot-4 Oregon post Ruthy Hebard to wreak havoc inside. Hebard had 16 points, 8 boards and 3 blocks in the first half as the Ducks took a 15-point lead to the locker room.
Though Central Michigan made a run in the third quarter, drawing as close as nine after back-to-back 3s by Cassie Breen, Oregon answered with an 11-2 run to end the period with an 18-point lead. By the fourth quarter, the biggest drama was whether star guard Sabrina Ionescu could complete her 11th career triple-double and second in this year's NCAA tournament. She finished one rebound shy, the closest Ionescu has come to a triple-double all season without getting one.
"I had no idea," she said afterward. "I don't think I played my best game. Regardless if I had gotten [a triple-double], I wouldn't have been any happier than I am now."
Indeed, near triple-double aside, this was a game that was won more by the Ducks' frontcourt than their guard play. Hebard finished with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting and Spokane native Oti Gildon came off the bench to contribute 10 points as Oregon outscored Central Michigan 42-24 in the paint.
"Sabrina didn't have her best night," said Graves. "Maite [Cazorla] wasn't at her best that we've seen. And even [Lexi] Bando. Don't get me wrong, they played well. Tonight was Ruthy's night. Next night, it might be somebody else or Sabrina."
The Ducks will have another night, playing Monday for the first trip to the Final Four in program history. This was the end of the line for the Chippewas, who won over fans with their hot shooting and efficient offense en route to the Sweet 16. Those shots didn't fall Saturday, as Central Michigan went 7-of-27 on 3s, but the team still made history with its first NCAA tournament wins.
"I went in and I told them that I was so proud of them," Chippewas coach Sue Guevara said. "I thought, you know, we kept fighting. We just couldn't get over that hump. I think when you lose a basketball game, and you did everything that you could possibly do, sometimes you just lose to a better team."