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Women’s Basketball: Standing in the spotlight

Chris Masoud | Thursday, January 14, 2010

Notre Dame will make ESPN history once again this weekend as the Irish take on the Connecticut Huskies in the network’s premiere of Women’s Basketball College Gameday. Although the matchup features two of the nation’s top three teams battling for Big East supremacy, conference standings have taken a backseat to the Gameday hype.

“We’re just so excited to be part of the whole Gameday atmosphere,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I know this crowd is going to come out, and the fans will be very supportive of the entire day. It’s going to be a historic event for women’s basketball, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”

McGraw has guided the Irish to a sensational 15-0 start to the season, but Saturday’s contest will be their toughest challenge yet. In addition to the talent on the court, the Huskies are averaging close to 10,000 fans per game in Gampel Pavilion.

“It’s not a game where there’s any pressure on us to win,” McGraw said. “I think because the game is at UConn, the Gameday event is definitely geared towards them and their fans. They’re the No. 1 team in the nation, and they’ve earned that right to have the publicity be about them. It’s fine with us. We’re very content to be the underdog in this game.”

ESPN College Gameday made its debut in 1993 as Notre Dame hosted Florida State in a matchup of the top two football teams in the country. Like the first premiere, the Irish hope to break in the show with a victory.

“The first ever Gameday was here for a football game, and that’s kind of how the whole Gameday thing got started,” McGraw said. “So it’s kind of fun that Notre Dame gets to be involved in the first historic event, now for women’s basketball. I think that really makes it exciting for the team that Notre Dame was chosen.”

Despite the overwhelming distractions, senior guard Ashley Barlow is confident the team’s resolve and focus will outweigh any challenges the hype may bring.

“Since it is Gameday we have to go out there and show the world what we can do,” Barlow said. “We’re going to go out there like it’s a regular game, play to the best of our abilities, have confidence in each other, and believe that we can win.”

Echoing her teammate’s thoughts, senior guard Melissa Lechlitner said she believes sticking to the team’s strengths and avoiding the inevitable buildup is the best plan for success.

“We haven’t really talked about the fact that it’s Gameday,” Lechlitner said. “We’re just going out like it’s any other game. Basically, we’re trying to stay in a bubble right now and avoid everything the media is saying and what the fans and everyone outside are saying. We’re just trying to stay within the team and within ourselves right now.”

More than anything else, McGraw will be relieved when the media’s attention is no longer a factor in her players’ performance. Although Notre Dame finished with a convincing 81-64 victory over South Florida Tuesday, the game’s outcome was still uncertain late in the second half.

“It was hard for them because the fans and their friends on campus and everybody’s talking only about Gameday, and we had two games before that, so I thought we lost our focus for a little bit,” McGraw said. “But now we can finally focus on it, and I think that makes it a little bit easier on them.”

College Gameday airs live at 10 a.m. on ESPN Saturday.