Notre Dame, Duke helped Norfolk Regional draw animated crowd

Norfolk, Old Dominion and the Constant Center affirmed their stature as worthy hosts of the NCAA women's basketball tournament this week with animated crowds, a polished arena and apparently seamless logistics.

Tuesday's regional final between Notre Dame and Duke attracted 6,606, second-best among the four Elite Eight sites. California-Georgia drew 5,863 in Spokane, Wash., Louisville-Tennessee 6,147 in Oklahoma City, and Connecticut-Kentucky 8,594 to Bridgeport, Conn.

About a 90-minute drive from UConn's campus, Bridgeport was bound to have the largest turnout when the renowned in-state program advanced to the regional final. Norfolk also was graced with a fan-friendly title game.

Notre Dame and Duke were the region's top seeds. The ACC-bound Fighting Irish have a national fan base, the ACC champion Blue Devils a regional following. Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins is the game's most compelling presence not named Griner, while Duke center Elizabeth Williams hails from Virginia Beach.

As Comrade Fairbank detailed prior to the Norfolk Regional, this marked the 21st time the city and ODU hosted the NCAA women's tournament, the second Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds for the Constant Center.

If city and university officials desire, Norfolk figures to remain in the rotation as a future host. Similarly, Notre Dame and Duke are likely to remain among the nation's top 10 next season and beyond.

Tuesday's 87-76 loss was the Blue Devils' fourth consecutive exit in a regional final. Coach Joanne P. McCallie guided Michigan State to the 2005 Final Four, but she's yet to return with Duke.

Despite losing All-America guard Chelsea Gray to a season-ending knee injury in late February, the Blue Devils finished 33-3 and went undefeated in the ACC. Yet McCallie wanted no part of the feel-good angle.

Not yet, at least.

"I think there is a time for that," she said. "(But) this one should stick with us for a long time. I think there is a time to go back and celebrate all of the good things this team has done. If you do that too quickly that's a problem.

"You need to own up to what happened, why it happened and think about it a little bit. I think this team will do that and will better off because of that. I think that's what it's all about."

Reserve center Allison Vernerey (3.1 points per game) was the lone senior on Duke's roster, and if everyone returns as expected, the Blue Devils will have four 1,000-point career scorers next season: Gray, Williams, Tricia Liston and Haley Peters. Add Alexis Jones, the freshman who was MVP of the ACC tournament, and you have quite the lineup.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame heads to its third consecutive Final Four and a third straight semifinal clash with Big East rival UConn on Sunday.

"It really puts us in elite company," coach Muffet McGraw said. "I think it's a phenomenal accomplishment for this group. This junior class knows nothing else but going to the Final Four. …

"I don't know if people realize how hard it is to get back every year. We worked so hard all year long to get to this moment and we're just so proud to be here."

Diggins and her primary backup, Kaila Turner, are Notre Dame's only seniors, and while Diggins' overarching presence will be impossible to replicate, the Irish aren't likely to fade far, if at all.

A national title would be a fitting cap to Diggins' career, but Notre Dame will have to play much better in New Orleans than it did in Norfolk. The Irish trailed Duke by six at halftime, when McGraw told her team they could not play any worse.

"That's as poorly as we've played all year long, and we were only down six," she said. "So, we felt pretty good about it. Didn't feel good about the energy. I told them that we hadn't been out-worked all year long.

"That was our thing. We were a team that can really grind it out, fight, have a lot of grit and a lot of mental toughness. We didn't have it in the first half, and I think they knew that."

Notre Dame responded with a 56-point second half, and with all due respect to UConn, Louisville and California, the Irish and Diggins will be the story of the Final Four.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at For more from Teel, read his blog at teeltime and follow him at

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