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Moving into the polls

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Twenty-seven days ago Notre Dame lost to Georgetown 76-73 to open up Big East play and dropped to an underachieving 7-6 and 0-1 in the Big East.

With games against ranked foes such as Virginia Tech, Connecticut, Villanova, Miami and Boston College on the horizon, things were not going to get any easier for the Irish. But since then Notre Dame has rallied to beat all five of those ranked opponents and now find themselves not only nationally ranked, but also in the hunt for the Big East conference title.

“I give [the team] an A+ right now because I think if you looked at [our] schedule in the end of December and looked at what January was going to bring and to see six ranked teams on the schedule, and not a lot of easy games in between – every game was critical for us,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

Notre Dame (13-7, 6-2) is ranked No. 23 in the latest poll and it is the first time the Irish have appeared in a poll since the third week of the season. The Irish also have the most losses of any ranked team, but have been recognized for a strenuous schedule that has seen them post a 6-4 mark against top 25 opponents.

That impressive record has also helped Notre Dame earn a No. 12 RPI rating.

After Saturday’s most recent victory against a ranked foe, this time No. 23 Boston College, McGraw made a case for her team to be ranked.

“I think we’re a top 25 team,” she said. “I think [the Boston College] win was very important for us to continue the home streak but certainly to get the win over the ranked team.”

McGraw said two of the biggest reasons for Notre Dame’s improved play are defense and mental toughness. The Irish lead the Big East in scoring defense, allowing just 50.2 points in league games. The team has also played more physically and mentally focused down the stretch during close games.

“I think this team has grown tremendously throughout this season, and certainly from last year [with its mental toughness],” McGraw said. “I think mental toughness is something that last year people questioned our toughness and this year I think we’ve proven time and time again that we are a very, very tough team.”

Now the Irish look forward to a schedule that sees them face just one more ranked opponent, No. 22 Miami, for the remainder of the regular season. After playing so many difficult teams in January, Notre Dame should face an easier stretch in February and into early March.

The latest string of wins has Notre Dame thinking of a Big East title. But to do so, Connecticut needs to lose one more game. Currently the Huskies are 7-1 in conference play and face two more ranked teams in the regular season. West Virginia, who upset Notre Dame Jan. 17, is tied with the Irish at 6-2.

Notre Dame faces Georgetown at the Joyce Center Wednesday, looking to improve to 10-0 at home this season.