SOUTH BEND — When top-seed Notre Dame meets No. 9-seed Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Chicago Regional on Monday night, their familiarity with each other could breed some contempt.
In recent years, coach Muffet McGraw and her third-ranked Fighting Irish have won six straight against the Spartans.
Officially, the last game between the two teams took place last season on Dec. 6, 2017 — a 90-59 Irish victory — on the same Purcell Pavilion floor where Michigan State improved to 21-11 Saturday with an 88-87 victory over No. 8-seed Central Michigan just a couple hours after the defending NCAA champion Irish (31-3) ran away from No. 16-seed Bethune-Cookman, 92-50.
Unofficially? The No. 3 Irish and Spartans got together for a preseason scrimmage in October behind closed doors at the Breslin Center, Michigan State's home 160 miles to the northeast. Allowable, yes, under NCAA rules, but both teams were sworn to secrecy until coach Suzy Merchant and McGraw came clean Sunday.
"We're still making a lot of the same mistakes," McGraw joked about that spirited workout. "It was helpful. We got to work on things against another really good team. But it was so long ago, and I don't think we can look at that and say this is what we're going to face because both teams have improved a lot since then."
Michigan State features Victoria Gaines, a redshirt junior from Merrillville. The 6-foot-1 forward started and scored eight points on 4 of 4 shooting against Central Michigan.
Among the victories by the Spartans, who have won 20 or more games in 10 of Merchant's 12 seasons, are wins over second-seeds Oregon, Iowa and Maryland plus over tourney teams Michigan (twice), Indiana and Wright State. Notre Dame has nine victories over eight teams in the last AP Top 25 heading into the tournament, including Top 10 teams Louisville (twice), Iowa and North Carolina State.
"We've seen them up close and personal this year and the past," said Merchant, who started second-year grad student Taya Reimer, who played for McGraw and got her undergrad degree at Notre Dame, the last time the teams played. "Every time we play them, they are extremely talented, athletic and they share the ball well and play well together. And it seems we can never get away from Jessica Shepard."
Shepard, a 6-foot-4 power forward who had 22 points and 13 rebounds Saturday for the Irish, transferred from MSU's Big Ten-rival Nebraska and played a big role in Notre Dame's national champion drive that was accomplished without four players, including Brianna Turner and reserve Mikayla Vaughn, who had ACL injuries.
The Irish have won 10 straight games, averaging 95.6 points with a margin of victory of 30 points thanks to a starting five all averaging in double digits. Saturday, all-time leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale scored 23 points and Turner had 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocks against Bethune-Cookman. Versatile Jackie Young chipped in 11 points, four assists and four rebounds and Vaughn had nine points and 11 rebounds off the bench.
McGraw saw enough of the Spartans on Saturday to be worried. Michigan State got 21 points off the bench from Sidney Cooks and four starters finished in double figures.
"Michigan State is a very balanced team," McGraw said. "Cook off the bench was maybe their best player and Taryn McCutcheon is so important to their team. She's a great 3-point shooter and runs the team. She gets up and really guards and is a great defender."
There are roots shared by Young, Indiana prep basketball's all-time leader scorer from Princeton, and Jenna Allen, who won a state title at Bedford North Lawrence for coach Damon Bailey, the Indiana legend whose record Young broke with her 3,268 points.
"We played Jackie my senior year and we beat her (60-29)," Allen said of Young, who is averaging 14.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and has a pair of triple-doubles this season.
"She's a very good post player," Young said of Allen, who is averaging 12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 38.1 percent from long distance.