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ND Women’s Basketball: ND faces familiar foe in unfamiliar circumstances

Eric Retter | Friday, February 17, 2006

Five years ago, it wasn’t a rivalry.

Five years ago, Notre Dame had never beaten Connecticut, one of the standard bearers of women’s basketball over the last decade.

Back then, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw announced that sentiment, making it clear that one-sided rivalries aren’t rivalries. Rivalries involve back-and-forth action. They involve winning on both sides. As Notre Dame began to establish itself as a national power, the UConn matchup was a must-win game – the cover charge to get into the elite door of NCAA women’s hoops.

Five years ago, the Irish beat Connecticut – twice – the second win coming in the Final Four just two days before the Irish won the 2001 national championship.

Beginning with that victory, the Irish won four out of their next 10 games against the Huskies, becoming a yearly threat on UConn’s schedule. A young rivalry began to bud.

On Sunday, Notre Dame again squares off with the Huskies in a must-win game. But this time, the Irish are fighting to salvage their season, struggling to turn around a disappointing stretch in the Big East that has them at 5-7 in-conference with losses to mediocre opponents like Seton Hall and Villanova.

“This year I think of it a little bit different – it’s a big game for us,” McGraw said.

Connecticut, like it has so often these past years, enters the game with an imposing 22-3 record and a No. 3 national ranking.

The Huskies, however, have a lot to lose.

“They’re fighting for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament right now,” McGraw said.

Most coaches of back-against-the-wall teams are pretty worried when a hungry, top-5 team comes to town. McGraw, however, seemed excited when discussing Sunday’s match up and appears to view the game in more optimistic terms – an opportunity for major progress.

“It’s really a great time for us to play them,” she said. “We need to play a really good team to help our RPI.”

The Irish, a classic bubble team, need an impressive finish to qualify for the NCAA tournament. A win Sunday would go a long way to help Notre Dame on that front.

Perhaps McGraw is so confident because she knows her team can beat the Huskies. After all, they did it last year.

In the Irish’s 65-59 win in 2005, All-American senior Jacqueline Batteast shot 3-of-17 from the floor, and senior center Teresa Borton had five points. That day, Notre Dame was led by Courtney LaVere, Megan Duffy and Charel Allen, who had 14, 12, and 11 points, respectively.

All of them were hot that day. And all of them are peaking now.

Duffy has been the team’s anchor all season, averaging 15.5 points per game, and at times she has been responsible for keeping the Irish in games.

LaVere has recently rediscovered her form in the post, scoring in double figures in each of her last four games.

Against Villanova on Feb. 7, Allen had 14 points in the second half and almost single-handedly led the team back from a 20-point deficit to send the game to overtime.

Maybe McGraw is so confident because she knows her team is dangerous. She fully expects Connecticut to play that way.

“They won’t look past us,” she said. “They’ll be ready to play.”

Connecticut is one the best teams in the country, and its national ranking accurately reflects that. But the way McGraw sounds, maybe it won’t be so shocking if the Huskies weren’t ranked No. 3 Monday morning.

Rivals have a way of making those things happen.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Eric Retter at eretter@nd.edu