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Monardo: Experience drives Notre Dame’s championship run (April 3)

Joseph Monardo | Tuesday, April 3, 2012

For the second year in a row, the Irish captured a victory over Connecticut in the Final Four and are headed to the national championship game.

The only difference is, this year is “the year.”

Last year, the second-seeded Irish toppled Tennessee and Connecticut on the way to a title date with Texas A&M. For emphasis, Notre Dame beat the two undisputed powers in women’s basketball in consecutive games in the NCAA tournament. If there is a better way for a team to announce itself as having arrived, it hasn’t been discovered yet.

After terrorizing a pair of top seeds, the Irish only had to dismiss the No. 2 seed Aggies to cut down the nets. They shed the underdog role which they had taken on so effectively in the Elite Eight and Final Four and became the favorites to win the National Championship game.

Throughout the course of the tournament, the Irish changed “Connecticut’s year,” or “Tennessee’s year,” to “Notre Dame’s year.”

But then they lost, and the year was over. The moment passed and the Irish were left with nothing but runner-up status.

This year, on the other hand, has been Notre Dame’s year from day one. Returning all-world junior point guard Skylar Diggins, whose popularity skyrocketed to idol status during the 2011 tournament run, the Irish entered the season as early favorites to reach the national championship game.

Along with Diggins, the Irish welcomed back two graduate students in forward Devereaux Peters and guard Brittany Mallory, who seemed to be using their final year of eligibility in 2012 as a result of some act of fate rather than of unfortunate injuries. Even more, senior guard Natalie Novosel was back to make another run at a title. Novosel’s toughness and versatility on the offensive end have sustained the Irish all year, none more so than when she forced overtime against the Huskies with a put-back layup in the final seconds of the national semifinal game Sunday.

Sophomore guard Kayla McBride and sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa performed admirably in supporting roles all season, as did senior guard Fraderica Miller.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw has referred to Peters, Mallory, Novosel and Miller as possibly the best outgoing class to come through Notre Dame during her 25-year tenure. Add to that extreme level of aged talent the experience gained from last year’s title-game loss (and the proverbial chip that has grown on Diggins’ shoulder since), and you have a recipe for success.

The Irish have been on a beeline for the national championship since the final buzzer sounded in last year’s title-game loss. It has been a great campaign, with nothing but minor bumps along the road. If there is ever a year that the Irish can add another title to the 2001 installment, this is it.

And yet, this is Brittney Griner’s year. The 6-foot-8 junior has lead the Bears within one game of the first 40-0 season in Division I basketball. If there is ever a team that could complete the perfect season through 40 games, Baylor is that team.

So what happens when two teams seemingly fated to capture the national championship meet on a collision course? The answer is obvious: One team will be bounced from its trajectory while the other breaks through and makes history. At the same time, no substantial answer is available yet – it will play out over the course of tonight’s game.

Certainly, a loss would be more disappointing for the Irish. If the best senior class in program history cannot add another banner to Purcell Pavilion, what Irish team will? Diggins will be back next year, along with McBride and Achonwa, but the likelihood of winning the national championship only decreases from here. Baylor’s top six scorers, meanwhile, have another year of eligibility, making this season more of a prelude to “the year” for the Bears than anything.

For the losing team, the moment will pass and the 2011-2012 season will become a source of regret and a topic of conversation on media day next year. But for the winning team, the 2011-2012 season will take on an infinite amount of added significance, forever to be known as “the year.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu

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