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Regular season champion Irish head into tournament

Kelsey Manning | Thursday, March 1, 2012

After topping Connecticut 72-59 and crowning themselves sole regular-season conference champions on Monday, the No. 3 Irish now prepare to return to the XL Center to begin Big East tournament play in the quarterfinals Sunday.

The victory marks the first time the Irish (27-2, 14-1 Big East) have won the regular season conference championship outright. Notre Dame shared the title with Connecticut in 2001, before going on to win the national championship that year. According to Irish coach Muffet McGraw, achieving that goal has only made her team more anxious for the next one.

“I think winning the regular season was a great accomplishment for us. Never having done it before, I think made it more special,” McGraw said. “If we could follow it up with a win in the Big East championship, to get the automatic bid, that would be another first for our program.”

According to senior guard Natalie Novosel, who had 21 points Monday, it was easy to look ahead to a potential matchup in the tournament final when playing Connecticut at the XL Center Monday. She said that prospect does not at all frighten this Irish squad.

“It’s easy to look ahead — a lot of people talk about it,” Novosel said. “It can possibly be a déjà vu moment. It’s a week later, in the championship. But I think absolutely [we were thinking about it.

“Like we’ve said again and again, we’re not afraid of them anymore, and it’s nice to kind of be out of their shadow, and to find our own identity — I think that’s one thing we were able to accomplish the other night.”

At the same time, the Irish are approaching the tournament in the same way they approached their regular season — one game at a time. McGraw said the competition in the Big East is so tight that it is tough to predict which squad might leave Hartford with the championship.

“I think all of the top eight teams, actually the top nine seeds [are capable of winning],” she said. “If you look at the game that South Florida just gave us, they’re the nine seed, and we struggled to beat them here. They’ve had a lot of close games with a lot of teams. So I think really anybody is the top nine is capable of winning.”

Novosel said even with the team’s success, nothing will change with the team’s mindset.

“Coach McGraw does a really good job of (making) us [have] the mentality of taking it one game at a time,” the senior said. “In practice, it’s really competitive, and we’re just working on the next teams in drills and stuff, so I think she does a really good job of keeping us humble. And also we’ve got a lot of veterans on the team, a lot of experience, and that helps just keep the team grounded and not looking ahead to things.”

With No. 16 Pittsburgh facing No. 9 South Florida in the first round, the winner of that game facing No. 8 DePaul in the second round and the winner of that matchup advancing to play Notre Dame in the quarterfinals, the Irish could face a couple foes that gave them trouble in the regular season.

Though the Irish defeated DePaul 90-70 in their regular-season contest Feb. 5, McGraw and her players expressed disappointment in allowing 70 points on defense. DePaul (21-9, 9-7) was paced by forwards sophomore Jasmine Penny’s 24 points and junior Katherine Harry’s 20. Novosel said the Irish would relish the opportunity to take on the Blue Demons once more this season.

“We looked at the people we could possibly play and I think DePaul we definitely want to play again,” she said. “They challenged us on our home court and our defense took a hit. I think that’s something we’d definitely enjoy — to have another rematch with them and get that game back.”

South Florida (16-14, 8-8) notched 68 points Saturday against the Irish. Though Novosel recorded a career-high 32 points in the victory, she said the team’s defense would have to step up in another matchup with the Bulls.

“[South Florida] definitely challenged us at home — they’ve got some really quick guards and some great shooters, so we’re just going to have to hone in on defense on them,” she said. “Again, it comes down to defense. We’ve just got to lock down and just know our defensive assignments.”

Regardless of whom the Irish play in the tournament, Novosel said the team knows not to take anything for granted in the Big East tournament.

“I think whomever we play in the Big East tournament right now, everyone’s level of play raises because this is for NCAA tournament seeds,” she said. “Everyone’s going to be raising the level of play.”

The Irish will take on the winner of DePaul and South Florida/Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament quarterfinals Sunday.

 

Contact Kelsey Manning at kmannin3@nd.edu