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Bernard: Irish still have a ton to prove (April 5)

Cory Bernard | Friday, April 5, 2013


Notre Dame finds itself in an unfamiliar position as it prepares for another Final Four showdown with Connecticut. But don’t expect that to matter come Sunday.

With Louisville making its second appearance in the Final Four and California appearing for the first time, most attention has been paid to the Big East blue-bloods on the other side of the bracket.

Unlike past years, the Irish enter Sunday’s game against Connecticut without a loss to the Huskies earlier this season. Including last year’s victory in the Final Four, Notre Dame has won four straight games against one of college basketball’s greatest programs. The Irish currently have the upper hand in the rivalry, something they have never had.

Indicative of the recent trend, Geno Auriemma even fielded questions during his Final Four teleconference Wednesday about Notre Dame’s unprecedented success against Connecticut. He was asked, “With all your experience, to what degree do you worry about there being a mental edge that Notre Dame has here or mental obstacle that your team has to overcome?”

Notre Dame doesn’t simply hope to beat Connecticut anymore. They expect it.

So, it appears the Irish have flipped the tables, right? Given their clean sweep of the Big East and recent triumphs over the Huskies, the Irish should clearly be favored Sunday.

Not quite.

With so much focus on Notre Dame after three consecutive Final Four appearances and four years of Skylar Diggins, it’s easy to forget the program has only one national title. 12 years ago. The Huskies have won five titles in that span.

I am not saying the program’s past success makes this Connecticut team unbeatable. They are a far cry from squads with former stars Maya Moore and Tina Charles. And the Irish are undoubtedly closer to Connecticut, talent-wise and confidence-wise, than they have been since that 2001 national championship. 

Every game this year between the two rivals has been decided in the waning seconds of regulation or overtime. Notre Dame has matched and exceeded Connecticut’s intensity in each instance and earned the victory. 

Make no mistake, the Irish are an excellent team. But this is still Geno Auriemma and this is still Connecticut. And last time I checked, national championships provide a far better “mental edge” than regular season victories.

Auriemma summarized the difference perfectly when asked about the matchup between Connecticut senior guard Kelly Faris and her Notre Dame counterpart Diggins.

“It’s been a heck of a rivalry, I think individually maybe less so than team wise,” he said. “But Skylar’s gotten a lot more attention and certainly a lot more accolades for what she’s done for Notre Dame.

“But I don’t think Kelly would trade her national championship for anything in the world.”

Notre Dame has many things Connecticut doesn’t have, most notably an edge in recent head-to-head matchups. For the first time in school history, Notre Dame has strung together an impressive winning streak against the Huskies. It truly is in uncharted territory.

But none of that matters without a championship. Only if the Irish win Sunday and again Tuesday will they be in an unfamiliar position that does indeed matter.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the The Observer.