SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Texas A&M Aggies have brought their lunch pails to the NCAA tournament and are ready to get to work.
Coach Gary Blair gave each player a lunch pail following a 67-50 loss at Iowa State on Feb. 4. Blair wanted to impress on the Aggies the need to show up ready to work at every practice and every game. He said the message was even more important during these troubled economic times.
"It's work. W-O-R-K. That's what we're going to try to do every day is try to outwork people," he said.
The players scoffed at the lunch pails initially.
"To be honest, when coach came in with our lunch boxes, the team didn't understand what that meant," center La Toya Micheaux said.
Now, the players bring the lunch pails — decorated with Tinkerbell, Spiderman, Transformers — with them to practice. And the second-seeded Aggies have brought that work ethic to the NCAA tournament, where they're making their sixth appearance and fourth straight.
Texas A&M (25-7) lost in the first round in 2006, the second round in 2007 and the third round last year to champion Tennessee.
To make the final eight, the Aggies likely would need to beat No. 1 Connecticut. Still, that remains the goal.
"I think everyone's goal is to win the championship. But I think our goal is to go a step further," guard Danielle Gant said. "If we go a step further it would mean we've done our job in practice. We came to work extra hard. Going one round further, we won't be satisfied, but I think it would give the coaches a lot of respect just knowing that we did advance to another level."
First, the Aggies must beat No. 15 seed Evansville (15-18), the only team in the field with a losing record. The Purple Aces earned the NCAA berth by winning the Missouri Valley tournament after finishing tied for last place in the regular season with a 4-14 conference record.
Evansville guard Ashley Austin, who was selected tournament MVP after averaging 17.7 points over the final three games, said the team finally meshed.
"Obviously, we didn't have the season that we wanted to, especially during conference," she said. "It was really hard for us to get on the same page. Everyone wasn't understanding their roles. Finally, when we got to tournament, it all came together."
Minnesota, too, has stumbled this season, losing four of their last five.
The 10th-seeded Gophers (19-11), who are making their sixth appearance in seven seasons, will play No. 7 see Notre Dame (22-8).
Playing on an opponent's home court will be a challenge, but the Gophers were 6-7 on the road this year and one of only two teams to win at Ohio State.
"I think that gives us a lot of confidence," guard Emily Fox said. "A lot of people are asking how we're going to play at Notre Dame against them on their home floor. We have beat Ohio State on the road, we have beat Michigan State on the road. I think that experience and that confidence is really going to help us out because we know how to handle those situations."
Notre Dame is making its 14th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and is hosting NCAA tournament games for the fifth time. They are 6-1 at home in the tournament, their lone loss coming against the Gophers in 1994.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she's hoping that past success helps.
"When you look on the wall in the locker room and see the seven Sweet 16s, the national championship, the Final Fours, I think you know this is a big tradition to uphold here. I think they feel like it's their job to continue to uphold that tradition."