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Irish enter semifinal rematch

Joseph Monardo | Thursday, March 29, 2012

For the second consecutive year, the Irish and the Huskies will face off in the Final Four with a berth in the national championship game on the line. In last year’s semifinal, the two-seed Irish entered the game as the heavy underdogs,

trying to prove they belonged among the game’s elite.

What a difference a year makes.

No. 4 Notre Dame (34-3, 15-1 Big East) and No. 3 Connecticut (33-4, 13-3) both enter this year’s Final Four matchup in Denver as top seeds. No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Stanford also reached the Final Four as top seeds, making this the first Final Four since 1989 populated entirely by number-one seeds.

For the Irish, the arrival at Denver is a long-awaited achievement that brings relief.

“I feel like we have accomplished what we needed to,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think we would have been extremely disappointed had we not gotten this far. I think the expectation from probably November was that these are the four teams that were going to advance, and that is a heavy burden to carry throughout the year.”

Despite the burden, the Irish managed to sustain success throughout the season, losing only to Baylor (38-0, 18-0 Big-12), Big East foe West Virginia and Connecticut.

In the tournament’s opening rounds, the Irish made the most of their home-court advantage, and blew out 16-seed Liberty 74-43 before hammering out a 73-62 victory over eight-seed California. The Irish used a dominant defensive effort to get past five-seed St. Bonaventure, 79-35 in the Sweet 16, and crushed two-seed Maryland in the Elite Eight, 80-49.

“Our last game against Maryland seemed one of the best we have played this whole tournament, maybe all year, and we just have to really use that as momentum going into this game,” Irish graduate student guard Brittany Mallory said.

The Irish must face a familiar foe in their Final Four matchup with the Huskies, who fell to the Irish twice in the regular season before denying Notre Dame its first-ever Big East tournament championship.

“We know them pretty well, they know us pretty well, so I don’t think there is going to be a lot of mystery in the game,” McGraw said. “I think it’s a matter of who is going to play well, who is going to make shots, who is going to be able to defend a little bit better. The adrenaline will be flowing, I think anything can happen.”

The Irish have plenty of prior experience and game tape to help guide them as they attempt to replicate the successes from their two wins.

“[In our wins over Connecticut,] we were just clicking, especially on defense we were getting a lot of stops,” Irish graduate-student forward Devereaux Peters said. “In the [Big East title] game, we were letting them do what they wanted to do … and we let them decide what we were running [on offense] and we weren’t as aggressive as we normally are, so that definitely has to change.”

As they attempt to move past Connecticut and into the championship game, the Irish gain confidence from last year’s tournament, Mallory said.

“Since we have been there before, we aren’t as star-struck from the whole Final Four atmosphere,” she said. “We are a little more relaxed going in, and just knowing what to expect.”

The Irish will tip off with Connecticut at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Pepsi Center, as they try to advance to their second-straight national championship game.

 

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu