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Robison: Irish are ready to reach consecutive Final Fours (3-23-12)

Matthew Robison | Thursday, March 22, 2012

Six points. That is how close Notre Dame came to winning a national championship last season. Six points. The Irish did the seemingly impossible: They knocked off both Tennessee and Connecticut in consecutive games to advance to the national championship game. Forty minutes of basketball against Texas A&M was all that remained between Notre Dame and a title.

But the Irish fell short. Six points. Undoubtedly, the loss haunts coach Muffet McGraw and the Irish. But it has only made them hungrier. One only has to look at the fire in the eyes of Skylar Diggins as she drives to the basket, the concentration on Natalie Novosel’s face as she slashes for a running jumper or the look of fury on Devereaux Peters’ face as she gobbles up rebound after offensive rebound.

This Notre Dame team looks ready. The Irish have already knocked off Tennessee, they have already beaten Connecticut twice, and the only blemishes on their record so far are a loss to undefeated No. 1 Baylor, a surprising home upset at the hands of West Virginia and a disappointing loss to the Huskies in the Big East championship game.

The road to the national championship continues in Raleigh this weekend. In their first two games of the NCAA tournament, the Irish have dominated three of four halves of basketball. California managed to keep it tied through the first half of the second round matchup, but Notre Dame took control in the second. The electricity of the crowd in the Purcell Pavilion on Sunday and Tuesday nights was palpable. Indeed, McGraw picked up the public address announcer’s microphone after the game, telling the crowd there was no way Notre Dame would have won without that support.

The best news for Irish fans is that trips to the Final Four have become what are expected for Notre Dame. McGraw has built a tradition of excellence that accepts nothing less than runs at national championships every year. She got her first in 2001 with Ring of Honor resident Ruth Reilly and current assistant coach Niele Ivey. This year, it seems as though she has all the pieces again.

The Irish have arguably the best player in the nation in Diggins, a Naismith Award finalist. They have a dominant post player in Peters. They have a lockdown defender in Brittany Mallory. They have a pure scorer in Novosel, and they have a strong all-around, young player in Kayla McBride. They are deep off the bench and they play good team defense.

For those reasons and more, for the Irish not to make it out of Raleigh with a ticket to the Final Four would be nothing less than disappointing. On top of holding the No. 1 seed in the bracket, the Irish have a favorable draw. It may be demanding a lot, but it is not demanding too much.

Should the Irish beat No. 5 St. Bonaventure in the regional semifinal, the possibility of a rematch with Texas A&M awaits. The No. 2 seed is Maryland, the ACC champion. Losing to any of those teams would be unacceptable with the degree of excellence McGraw demands.

The future is certainly bright for Notre Dame, but the present is just as brilliant.

Every year, the challenge of winning a national championship will get harder. The parity that was once lacking in collegiate women’s basketball is developing. One game in particular points to that trend. In the Des Moines bracket, No. 11 Kansas knocked off No. 3 Delaware. That points to parity for two reasons: Delaware, a mid-major team, locked up a No. 3 seed in the bracket, and Kansas advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 11 seed.

Women’s basketball is becoming a more dynamic game. In that respect, there is no better time for Notre Dame to capitalize and take home another national title.

It’s Denver or bust. The time is now.

 

Contact Matthew Robison at mrobison@nd.edu

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