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Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, March 4, 2005

Last year at this time, Notre Dame was 5-7 on the road. Losses at Seton Hall, Georgetown and West Virginia put a damper on the Irish’s second place finish in the Big East.But this season, the No. 10 Irish are 11-2 on the road going into the Big East tournament, having found a way to beat good teams on the road. Notre Dame even defeated Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., 65-59, on Jan. 30 to snap the Huskies’ 112-game home Big East winning streak.”We’ve played so much better on the road,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “And the upperclassmen have really led that because of their maturity – making it the same every time, trying to get them to focus.”I think we’re in a pretty good routine on the road right now, so it’s been good.”Notre Dame finished second in the Big East after Tuesday’s ugly 41-35 win at Seton Hall moved them to 13-3 in the conference – the victory was Notre Dame’s twelfth in its last 13 games.”I think the Seton Hall game took us by surprise,” McGraw said. “But then to look and say, ‘That’s as bad as we can play, and we still won,’ that has to give us a little more confidence.”No. 9 Rutgers (23-5, 14-2 Big East) won the regular season conference title outright, and No. 14 Connecticut (20-7, 13-3) finished third. The Irish won the tiebreaker with the Huskies after the two split the season series. The fourth place team, No. 22 Boston College, knocked off the Huskies once this year, and Notre Dame beat the Eagles twice, giving them the edge. As a result, the Irish will play either seventh-seeded West Virginia (16-11, 7-9) or tenth-seeded Pittsburgh (13-14, 5-11). Notre Dame has beaten both by sizable margins this season.However, for Notre Dame, winning games in the Big East tournament has been challenging. Last year’s No. 2 seed dropped its first round game to Rutgers, 51-45, after relinquishing a 17-2 lead. In 2003, the Irish lost in the second round to Villanova as a No. 6 seed.”This team, this group, has not won a lot of games in the Big East tournament,” McGraw said. “It’s something that at the beginning of the year was one of our goals to do a lot better at. I think it’s a stepping stone to the NCAA tournament – you want to be peaking right now.”The Irish, whose 25-4 overall record is the second-best in McGraw’s tenure, have a lot to be happy about thus far this season. However, McGraw doesn’t want her team to be too complacent.”We’ve put ourselves in great position,” she said. “We have a lot to be happy about, but we have a lot of work to do yet. You want to pat them on the back and say it’s been great, but let’s not get carried away because there are still some games to play.”The Big East tournament kicks off Saturday, when the Irish will find out who their opponent is. Then they play the winner Sunday evening, and if they win their first game, they could face No. 3 seed Connecticut Monday.”You’ve got to be ready to play a great team every night,” McGraw said. “And we’re well prepared because we played all the top teams twice, so our strength of schedule has been really good, our RPI has been really good. So it’s an opportunity – it’s one and done, but your season’s not over, so there’s not quite the same pressure.”Tip-off for the Notre Dame game is 6 p.m. Sunday at the Hartford Civic Center, the site of last year’s tournament.Notes:u McGraw was named one of 20 finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award Thursday. McGraw is in her 18th season at the helm of the Irish and won the award in 2001 when Notre Dame won its first national championship.