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Owens: Talent to be tested at Big East tournament (Mar. 3)

Andrew Owens | Thursday, March 3, 2011

In every sport, there are three signs of a truly great team: Beating up on the ‘lesser’ opponents. Performing well against the top competition. And third, the ability to overcome adversity.

For this Irish squad, the jury is still out on whether this has been just another very good team assembled by coach Muffet McGraw, or whether this is a special club that rivals the 2001 squad, which won the program’s only national title.

The Irish pass the first part of the litmus test with flying colors. No unranked team has defeated Notre Dame, and the closest such game was an eight-point win at South Florida on Feb. 5, one that was never truly in doubt.

Playing well against the elite teams has not been a problem for the Irish. The only trouble they have had in this regard is finishing the job – winning the game’s crucial final minutes.

Against ranked opponents, Notre Dame is 4-5 this season, but only one of those losses was lopsided — 78-57 at No. 2 Connecticut on Feb. 19. The other four were all determined in the last few minutes.

The most excruciating loss of the season came on Jan. 8, when the Huskies, whose NCAA-record 90-game winning streak had been snapped the week before, went ahead with 14 seconds remaining on a layup by sophomore guard Kelly Faris. The Irish had led for most of the game, and the prospect of knocking conference rival Connecticut off their pedestal atop the Big East would have been a season-changing victory for the Irish. Instead, they were left playing the “what if” game and had the challenge of bouncing back in conference play, which they did.

The only other Big East loss of the season came last Monday, when DePaul sunk the hopes of the Irish, who were looking to pull off a major road victory and finish second in the conference. Senior forward Felicia Chester hit a clutch layup with six seconds to play to give the Blue Demons the victory. Once again, the Irish were robbed as their opponent snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

If Notre Dame is going to assert itself as a serious threat to Connecticut’s reign over the Big East, the Irish need to come up big in the final minutes of a close game. Until they come away with a signature victory, they cannot be considered among the top contenders for the national title.

The final aspect of the three-part formula of a top team is overcoming adversity. Let’s face it – every team gets at least a dose of it during the course of a long regular season. This year the Irish have had to deal with two in-season departures – junior forward Erica Solomon transferred in December, and highly-touted freshman guard Kayla McBride stopped play in January, both for personal reasons. The two were important bench players, combining for 15 points per game.

Additionally, the team has had to deal with the previously mentioned excruciating losses. The team has responded after the close losses and quickly put the defeats behind them.

The Big East tournament will be the most telling of indicators as to whether the two losses to Connecticut and the one-point loss to DePaul were signs that Notre Dame is very close to being a top team and just needs to get over the hump, or that the Irish are not in the top tier of the nation’s top talent.

For McGraw and her squad, the next two weeks will determine the legacy of this talented group.

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

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu