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ND Women’s Basketball: Hustlin’ the Huskies

Ken Fowler | Friday, February 17, 2006

It’s the kind of game that can define a season.

Coming off a 79-50 drubbing at the hands of DePaul, the Irish (14-9, 5-7 Big East) host No. 6 Connecticut (23-3, 11-1) Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Joyce Center in a matchup of conference rivals heading in opposite directions.

Notre Dame has struggled all season, playing inconsistent offense and defense and rarely winning the battle on the boards. But the team is looking forward to the game with Connecticut.

“We had one of the best practices of the year yesterday. At this point of the year, some teams have quit,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “But we have battled … and I think that shows a lot about the character of this team.”

The Irish want to rebound after their 29-point loss Feb. 12 and improve their prospects for making the NCAA Tournament. With a less-than-stellar conference record, McGraw said she knows Notre Dame must improve its current RPI of 40 to be in good position when the selection committee makes its decisions.

Connecticut enters at the other end of the spectrum. The Huskies have won 11 of their last 12, dating back to Jan. 7. Their only loss in that stretch was a hard-fought 60-56 loss to Rutgers, which is unbeaten in the conference, on Feb. 7. It was Connecticut’s only Big East loss.

“They’re really peaking; they’re right where they want to be for the Big East Tournament,” McGraw said. “It’s really a great time for us to play them because we need to play a really good team to help our RPI. And if we play well, it will give us confidence for a strong finish.”

Connecticut has four players with scoring averages in double digits. Guard Ann Strother leads the team with 14.3 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the floor, and her backcourt teammate Mel Thomas is scoring at a clip of 12.7 points a contest while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Forward Barbara Turner is shooting even better -54 percent – and averaging 11.3 points a night. Huskies guard Charde Houston has started just four games all year but averages 10.7 points in just 16.5 minutes.

“It’s a big challenge for us, and I think defensively, one of our biggest challenges of the year,” McGraw said. “Because generally everybody we play, there’s somebody on the team that we don’t have to worry about. But this is a team that not only in their [whole] starting group, but also coming off of the bench, players who are capable of having a big game.”

Connecticut’s strengths are not limited to the offensive end. The Huskies have 262 steals on the season (10 a game), compared to 173 for their opponents. What’s more, Connecticut grabs an average of five more rebounds than its opponents, and the team is plus-30 on blocks for the season.

“They’re a really good defensive team, and I think it’s something they don’t get enough credit for,” McGraw said. “People overlook that because they score so many points.”

That combination of offense and defense has led to sheer domination of Connecticut’s opponents. The Huskies average scoring 74.9 points per game and giving up just 55.5. The 19.4 average margin of victory is sixth in the nation.

But McGraw said Notre Dame’s win in Storrs, Conn. last year, which snapped Connecticut’s 112-game conference home winning streak, gives the Irish hope heading into the matchup.

“We have the confidence to know that this group, right here, has the ability to beat them,” she said. “If you look at the stats of that game, it wasn’t because [former Irish star forward] Jackie [Batteast] had a great game, so we have confidence.”

The stars of that game included Courtney LaVere (14 points) and Charel Allen (11) – both of whom should see a considerable amount of playing time Sunday. And like she did a year ago, when she scored 12 points while adding five assists and four rebounds, Megan Duffy will run the point for the Irish.

McGraw said she will not start Allen Sunday for strategic reasons.

“I think we need a spark off the bench; I think that she gives that energy coming in off the bench,” McGraw said. “We thought about starting her, but if we changed the lineup, I’m not sure who would give us that energy off the bench.”

The Irish enter the game in a tie for spots 9-11 in the Big East, with West Virginia a game back at No. 12. The Mountaineers face Pittsburgh Sunday in Morganstown, W. Va. and then host Notre Dame Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Despite the loss to DePaul, the Irish are nearly assured a spot in the Big East Tournament, held in the Hartford Civic Center March 4-7. For Notre Dame to miss the tournament, Seton Hall likely must win its last four games and the Irish would have to lose out.