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ND to face UConn in Final Four for third straight year

Samantha Zuba | Friday, April 5, 2013

They’ve punched their ticket to the Final Four once again. 

Despite No. 2 Notre Dame’s past success and Irish coach Muffet McGraw’s strong track record, few predicted in the preseason the Irish (35-1, 16-0 Big East) would make it to the Final Four in New Orleans.

But it’s off to the Big Easy for Notre Dame. For McGraw, the season has been quite the experience. She has enjoyed watching her players expand their potential and defy expectations.

“This has been a dream season for us,” McGraw said. “I think when you looked at us in the beginning of the year, nobody predicted us to be in the Final Four and certainly the improvement we’ve made throughout the year. But how well we’ve played throughout the year has been just so fun to watch.”

Notre Dame has succeeded on the strength of contributions from many corners. The Irish have counted on trusted veterans like senior guard Skylar Diggins, improved performers like junior forward Natalie Achonwa and new faces such as freshman guard Jewell Loyd. All of these pieces combined to propel Notre Dame to the Final Four for the third consecutive year.

“Skylar Diggins leading the team in just about every way possible, but great performances by Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa and [freshman] Jewell Loyd,” McGraw said. “We’ve had some fun along the way and we’re so blessed to be back for the third time.”

Three is an important number for Notre Dame this season. It is also the number of times the Irish beat No. 3 Connecticut on the year. Notre Dame will try to repeat the feat for the fourth time in the Final Four on Sunday.

The Huskies (32-4, 14-2 Big East) have quite a history with the Irish. 

Connecticut and Notre Dame have developed a fiercely competitive rivalry in the Big East. According to McGraw, it is one of the best rivalries in the sport.

“I think it is the most heated rivalry in women’s basketball and it’s a game that everybody enjoys watching,” McGraw said. “And we enjoy playing. I think it’s a fun game.”

Part of the fun and competiveness comes naturally from pitting two quality programs against each other. McGraw said she has respect for Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and the program he has built.

“Well, all his teams are really talented,” McGraw said. “I mean, they get great players. … He’s a very good coach offensively. I think the way their team moves and the style of game they play I think really fits what he has. He tinkers with it year to year, based on what he has. … They’re a very good defensive team. They rebound. They do everything really well. He’s a really good coach.”

Connecticut sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will challenge the Irish from beyond the arc with her 48.9 percent 3-point shooting mark. McGraw said she respects Lewis and freshman forward Breanna Stewart as two of the best players in the game.

“They’ve had No. 1 players, they’ve got Lewis and then Stewart,” McGraw said.

Despite this season’s success, the Final Four matchup with Connecticut will be no cakewalk for the Irish. Notre Dame can draw confidence from the knowledge they have a winning streak against the Huskies, but McGraw cautioned such assurance can only go so far.

“Yeah, it’s tough to beat a team three times,” McGraw said. “It’s tough to beat a team two times. And the battles we have had this year have gone back and forth and down to the wire. Every one of them. So we’ve really done some really great things at the end of the game to win the game. We’ve made some huge plays. When you look back at every game, whether it was a defensive stop or a huge basket or something good, we’ve been able to make something happen at the end. So we would certainly hope that the karma continues.”

Notre Dame will test its karma Sunday against Connecticut at 8:30 p.m. in New Orleans.

Contact Samantha Zuba at szuba@nd.edu