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Women’s Basketball: Team tries for first Big East tourney title

By Brian Hartnett | Thursday, March 7, 2013

After defeating No. 3 Connecticut in a triple-overtime thriller Monday night, No. 2 Notre Dame will travel to the Huskies’ home court to play in the Big East tournament. The tournament begins Friday at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.

Monday’s victory gave the Irish (28-1, 16-0 Big East) the outright Big East regular-season title, marking the second straight year the team has claimed the regular-season conference crown.

“[The regular-season title] is a great accomplishment for our team,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought we overachieved all season and I was especially pleased with the win [Monday], with all that was on the line for us.”

As the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament, the Irish have a double bye and do not play until Sunday’s quarterfinal round. McGraw said the long layoff between games will allow the Irish to rest before beginning postseason play.

“I think the first thing we need is a little rest, but I think [the break] is a good chance for us to work on some general things,” she said. “On defense, there are some things we need to do and offensively, we need to tighten some things up, put some new wrinkles in. But it will be good for us to be fresh because you might have to play three games in three days.”

The Irish will face either No. 8 seed South Florida or No. 9 seed Rutgers in its tournament quarterfinal matchup. Notre Dame narrowly beat South Florida (20-9, 9-7) in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 8, winning 75-71 in overtime. But the Irish rolled to a 71-46 victory over the Scarlet Knights (16-13, 7-9) on Jan. 13 at Purcell Pavilion.

The Irish will have to win three games in three days in order to win the tournament, which concludes Tuesday night. Notre Dame has never won a Big East tournament title.

McGraw said one major key to Notre Dame’s success at the tournament will be its bench play. The Irish bench contributed just nine of the team’s 96 points Monday night.

“We really need the bench,” McGraw said. “I think our bench has been really good all year, and different people have stepped up at different times. I think it’s going to be important that we really use them in this tournament.”

Notre Dame’s path to a conference championship will most likely involve another date with Connecticut (27-3, 14-2), as the Huskies have won seven of the last eight Big East tournaments and 18 overall since the tournament began in 1983. Although Connecticut has a 29-10 edge in the series between the two teams, the Irish have won six of the last seven matchups, including both of this season’s matchups.

McGraw said the recent success against the Huskies has greatly helped Notre Dame’s national perception.

“I think we have had a lot more confidence the last three years, having beaten them in the Final Four,” McGraw said. “I think, when you can compete at that level, it really gives your team the status of an elite program, and we’re excited that we have a chance to play such a great team in our conference.”

McGraw said the Irish know the main keys to matching up with the Huskies because Connecticut is such a familiar foe.

“Generally, it’s one of those games where it’s just a rebounding battle and a question of who’s going to make the most shots, a lot of little things,” she said. “We’ve played them so many times I think we know them well personnel-wise, so I think it’s just a matter of stepping up and competing.”

The top-seeded Irish will face South Florida or Rutgers on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the XL Center.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu