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For Irish, all roads lead to UConn

Meaghan Veselik | Thursday, March 31, 2011

Muffet McGraw and Niele Ivey finally beat Tennessee, and the Irish brought their historic jig to Dayton, Ohio, Monday night after a 73-59 victory over the No. 4 Lady Vols.

The Irish haven’t had the opportunity to perform that jig in the Final Four since 10 years ago, when McGraw was coaching Ivey, and the team fought its way to win the National Championship.

Notre Dame will face Connecticut for the fourth time this season, an opportunity it hoped for.

“I think in the back of our minds, we were rooting for Connecticut,” junior guard Natalie Novosel said. “Especially because [it is] another team in the Big East but also because they have beat us every single time this year, and we’ve been on kind of a vengeance run this year … with Oklahoma, and then we’ve never beaten Tennessee.”

The Irish have gone beyond the expectations of everyone but themselves this season, especially in the NCAA tournament. Entering the season, numerous reports called the team too young, too inexperienced and too unprepared.

“I think we have great momentum. I think we have the fighter mentality,” McGraw said. “We’re the underdogs, going into the game loose again. I think it’s been very rewarding for them to see their hard work come to fruition.”

The Irish entered the tournament with a record of 26-7, beginning their journey in Salt Lake City as a No. 2 seed taking on No. 15 Utah. Senior guard Brittany Mallory didn’t score a single point but was the key to the win with her strong defense. She didn’t need to score — she just needed to stop Utes guard Iwalani Rorigues from doing so. Her fellow guards, sophomore Skylar Diggins and junior Natalie Novosel, made sure to keep the points coming with 20 apiece on the way to a 67-54 Irish win.

McGraw knew the win wasn’t easy, though.

“I think the 10 days off, traveling, playing on somebody’s home court, they’re an underdog with crowd support coming off a huge tournament win. That was just a tough first matchup,” she said. “You have the pressure of being a two-seed, you’re supposed to win. Coming into the tournament we were not really at the top of our game. I think each game, we look a little more in rhythm and I think we’re just starting to really peak right now.”

Novosel and Peters kept the tempo going against Temple in game two in Salt Lake City. Novosel put up 17 points while Peters earned her ninth career double-double, and then some. She came out with 17 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.

But the offense didn’t win it all. The defense came out with 19 turnovers on the night and never allowed the Owls to get closer than within five points. 

Game three was a similar story, with the Irish taking control on both ends of the court as they defeated No. 6 Oklahoma 78-53. Notre Dame has a history of overtime games in the last four years in the NCAA tournament, but the only drama coming out of this game was Bruszewski exiting play early with a twisted knee — then returning, with a twisted knee.

Her fellow captain, Mallory, made up for the loss with a season-high 20 points, a strong recovery from the shooting slump she’d been suffering. Novosel chipped in 15, Peters 17 and 13 rebounds while Diggins had 12 assists.

The intensity continued against Tennessee, when Notre Dame snapped an 0-20 streak against the Lady Vols.

Leading the Irish on Monday was Diggins. She finished with 24 points while Bruszewski fought the pain to play 37 minutes for 13 points and a team-high eight rebounds, showing the intensity she knows will earn them another win.

“I would say the intensity still, at the same level, if not higher. It’s all out, it could potentially be our last game, so we’re going to give it our all like it’s our last game,” Bruszewski said.

But for her, Sunday’s game is another extension of her senior season.

“Amazing,” she said. “Just because I don’t want my senior season to end and no one else does either, so we’re going to go as far as we can.”

The Irish are facing a six-player rotation in the Huskies, but they aren’t letting their guard down.

“I don’t think it’s a huge disadvantage to only have six players. I think the team has great chemistry,” McGraw said. “Our championship team in 2001, we played six people. … If you can stay out of foul trouble, it’s really not as much of a disadvantage as people may think.”

Especially when Connecticut has the incredibly talented Maya Moore, a player Notre Dame has not been able to stop yet.

“I’m not sure that you can stop her. And definitely you can’t do it with one person. She is just a phenomenal player,” McGraw said. “She’s incredibly difficult to guard. I don’t think we’ve gone into any of the three games thinking we would hold her down.”

But Bruszewski agrees with her coach in another important aspect, that this team is just hitting its peak.

“There’s no better time than the end of the season to reach your peak, and that’s when you want to be playing your best basketball: at the end, like we are,” she said.

The Irish will take on the Huskies for a fourth time, hoping that this one’s the charm, Sunday at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis at 9:30 p.m. in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.