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ND Women’s Basketball: Once more

Matthew Robison | Tuesday, April 3, 2012

DENVER – One year ago, Notre Dame squared off against Texas A&M in the national championship game in Indianapolis and left heartbroken. Tonight, the Irish get their shot at redemption.

“I think last year was a little bit of an upset to get here, and now we feel like we were the higher seed,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “We should have gotten here.”

Standing 6-foot-8 and right between Notre Dame (35-3) and its second national title is superstar center Brittney Griner and Baylor (39-0), the undefeated favorite.

Baylor has a chance to do something no other team in the history of college basketball has done: win 40 games in a season.

For graduate students Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory as well as graduating senior Natalie Novosel, tonight’s game will be the last in an Irish uniform. Each has had a distinguished career at Notre Dame, but winning a title would be the ultimate capstone.

“It’s a great feeling,” Mallory said. “We, us seniors and the whole team, really just wanted to get back here. We had this chance last year, and didn’t come up. We came up short. And we’re just excited to be here and we’re looking forward to the chance to get that back.”

For perhaps the first time since they faced Connecticut on Jan. 7 in Purcell Pavilion, the Irish will be the underdog, a position they embrace.

“We’re back to being the underdog. Finally,” McGraw said. “It’s taken us a long time to get our green jerseys on. And we can now be even more loose and the pressure is all on them.”

The obvious challenge for Notre Dame is Griner’s presence inside. Her 6-foot-8 frame, even longer wingspan and polished post skills make her nearly impossible to defend one-on-one. The Irish will have to double down and make someone else beat them.

“She’s an extraordinary player,” McGraw said. “I think she changes the game. She changes a lot of things.”

In the four-guard system McGraw employs, the emphasis is not on the post. Thus, Notre Dame may not be as affected by Griner’s presence as much as some other teams. But the star certainly changes the way teams attack the basket.

“I think we’ll be able to run the stuff we have and really maybe have to make that extra pass, which we’ve been really good at all year long,” McGraw said.

“[Griner is] a game changer on the defensive end,” Novosel said. “So we just have to be smarter and engaging her and dishing off and just to not go in there and go right up into her.”

Sophomore guard Odyssey Sims, junior guard Jordan Madden and senior guard/forward Terran Condrey form a strong supporting cast around Griner.

In Sunday night’s matchup with the Cardinal, Stanford held Griner to 13 points on three-of-nine shooting. But the trio of guards consistently hit shots when the Cardinal doubled down on Griner. Condrey had 13 points, Sims finished with 11 and Madden had nine.

The Irish fell 94-81 to Baylor in Waco, Texas, on Nov. 20. In that matchup, Notre Dame had no answer for Griner. She scored 32 points on 14-of-18 from the field, with 14 rebounds and five blocks. The Irish guards were able to produce offensively, with junior guard Skylar Diggins and Novosel scoring 27 and 28, respectively.

Since that game, both teams have improved drastically. Each team was playing in only its fourth regular season game of the year at the time.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better,” McGraw said. “I think we’re a lot smarter. I think our shot selection is much improved, and I think defensively we’re a lot better.”

The Lady Bears did not see any particular reason the early season matchup would have an effect on either team’s approach to tonight’s game.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage,” Griner said. “We played them, and they know us and we know them.”

Another key matchup will be the battle of the point guards between Diggins and Sims. In the first game against Baylor, Sims scored 25 points and had six assists.

“Odyssey is what makes them go,” Diggins said. “She’s a great point guard. She does a great job getting to the line. She’s 40 percent from the three-point line, so you have to honor that. And she’s also good at getting to the basket.”

Both coaches agreed that all the preparation, all the practice and all the coaching would eventually boil down to execution.

“It’s going to be players making plays,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “It’s not going to be anything that Muffet does or I do. It’s going to be those guys on the floor making plays. Whoever makes the most plays will win the basketball game.”

Notre Dame faces Baylor tonight at 8:30 p.m. in Denver’s Pepsi Center. The game will be aired on ESPN.

Contact Matthew Robison at mrobison@nd.edu