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Women’s Basketball: Big East hopes for tourney bids

Eric Retter | Friday, March 10, 2006

Joining a conference-wide chorus, the Irish (18-11, 8-8 Big East) finally exhaled Tuesday, comforted by the fact that No. 9 Connecticut – the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and a lock for the NCAA Tournament – defeated No. 12-seed West Virginia in the Big East Championship.

The Mountaineers (15-15, 4-12) limped into the conference tournament with an eight-game losing streak and the belief that they needed to win it all and take the Big East’s automatic bid in order to make it into the field of 64.

“I think we [need to] win the tournament to [even] go to the NIT right now,” Mountaineers head coach Mike Carey said after West Virginia upset fourth-seeded St. John’s March 5 to advance to the tournament semifinals.

During their four-day run, the Mountaineers had become the first No. 12-seed ever to advance to the conference final, win a quarterfinal game or even make it out of the first round.

After West Virginia’s remarkable run ended, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw echoed the sentiments of the half-dozen or so Big East bubble teams hoping for an at-large invitation to the Big Dance when the brackets are announced Monday afternoon.

“It was a relief,” McGraw said. “It was an amazing run for them and it’s great to see, but I think it was good for the conference that Connecticut won.”

After defeating South Florida 73-66 in the first round of the Big East tournament, McGraw was confident that the win had sealed their NCAA berth.

“I think this [win] is enough,” McGraw said Saturday after the game. “I think we’ve got some good wins over good teams. We’re playing well right now – we’ve got four [wins] in a row. I think everything’s positive for us.”

But as West Virginia marched through the tournament, upsetting No. 1-seed Rutgers -which was previously unbeaten in the conference – to get to the finals and play for the automatic invitation, Notre Dame had cause for concern.

Now that the Mountaineers’ threat to steal the automatic bid is over, McGraw again feels secure.

“I feel like our resume is good – we’ve certainly played the tough schedule that [the tournament selection committee members] like to see,” McGraw said.

While Connecticut’s victory meant relief for numerous Big East schools, the win also gave the Huskies reason to be hopeful, as they now have the possibility of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“It would be unusual, but it is possible that a team could be a No. 1 seed without winning their [conference] tournament or regular-season [title],” said Joni Comstock, the NCAA Division I women’s basketball committee chair, in a conference call Tuesday.

As the decision goes to the committee, the Irish stack up well against the other Big East bubble teams – Louisville, Pittsburgh, Villanova, South Florida and Marquette. Though Notre Dame finished behind all of them in the Big East regular season standings and compiled a 3-3 record against them, the team’s ratings percentage index (RPI) of 28 is fourth in the conference. The Irish are trailing only Connecticut, Rutgers and DePaul, and they are far ahead of St. John’s and Villanova, their closest competitors at Nos. 45 and 37, respectively.

“We’ve beaten some good teams,” McGraw said. “I feel good about our chances.”

Now that the time to prove themselves has ended, the Irish will have to wait and see if they did enough to earn the at-large bid.

“It’s tough being on [spring] break and having to stay here and wait and see. That I think is the toughest part for the girls, not being able to go home,” McGraw said.

Ultimately, Notre Dame may not even have to prove itself better than the rest of the Big East bubble teams, just equal to them. Because of the strength and size of the Big East, eight invitations to Big East schools may not be an unreasonable possibility.

“I think we’ll get a lot of teams in,” McGraw said Sunday.

Notes:

u Irish senior point guard Megan Duffy was named the 2006 recipient of the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award Thursday. The honor is given annually to the nation’s top senior who is 5-foot-8 or shorter.

“I am thrilled and humbled to receive this prestigious award,” Duffy said in a statement released by the Notre Dame athletics department Thursday. “Nothing like this is possible without a wonderful group of teammates and coaches, and I share this trophy with them – it’s truly a team effort.”

u Irish senior forward Courtney LaVere was chosen Thursday to receive the Robin Roberts/WBCA Broadcasting Scholarship Award. The double major in computer applications and film, television and theatre interned at WNDU-TV in the summer of 2004 and will receive the $4,500 award at the WBCA Awards Luncheon April 2.