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Irish to compete for title in Hartford

Chris Masoud | Friday, March 4, 2011

Notre Dame travels to the Mecca of women’s basketball this weekend to take on the best the conference has to offer in the Big East championships.

While the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., may be the most attractive site for the conference tournament given the passion of its local basketball fans, a potential matchup against the Connecticut Huskies in the title game puts the Irish at a disadvantage, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

“It’s not a neutral site,” McGraw said. “It’s a great site. For the conference, we draw better than anybody in the country. We get really good crowds. The Connecticut fans come out for all the games, not just the UConn game. It’s hard to leave there because they really do a good job.”

The conference champion has been crowned in the XL Center since March of 2004, a testament to the electrifying atmosphere and financial security provided by the venue.

“We’ve looked at a couple of alternate sites, McGraw said, “but when you look at the financial side of it, it’s really difficult to find a place where we’re going to be as successful.”

Benefitting from two days of additional rest after securing a second-round bye heading into the tournament, the Irish lack the luxury of preparing for a specific team. However, No. 3 seed Notre Dame (24-6, 13-3 Big East) knows it will face the winner of a matchup between Louisville (19-11, 10-6), the No. 6 seed, and the winner of an opening round match between No. 11 seed Providence (13-15, 6-10) and No. 14 seed Villanova (11-18, 3-13).

Notre Dame handily took down each of its potential opponents during the regular season, including a 79-43 drubbing of Providence and a 58-43 win over Villanova. While the Irish took down the Cardinals 80-60 during the regular season at home, a rematch between the two teams will be far from the comforts of Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s going to be a lot different,” McGraw said. “[The Cardinals] are a much better team than they were when they played here. In fact, they played poorly here. A lot of that was our defense. They really didn’t play well, and we did a nice job defensively on some of their better players.”

Since their loss to the Irish, the Cardinals rebounded to finish the regular season tied for fifth in the conference.

“They’re fighting for a shot at the NCAA tournament,” McGraw said. “I think they have a great shot at the tournament, but I think for them, they want to keep winning to promote the résumé a little bit more, so it’s a huge game for them. For us, it’s a question of seeding. We need to play well coming off a loss.”

With a bitter taste in their mouths following a gut-wrenching 70-69 loss to No. 2 seed DePaul (26-5, 13-3) on Monday, the Irish eagerly await their next chance to get back on the court and regain momentum before heading into the national tournament. While last year’s squad was eliminated in the round of 16, senior forward Becca

Bruszewski said this year’s team has the potential to finish its season in Indianapolis, Ind., the site of the Final Four.

“I definitely think last year we fell short of our goal,” Bruszewski said. “This year, definitely I want us to bring the same intensity. I want to get us to the finals of the Big East tournament. I want us to go for the title and definitely [the] Final Four. With this team, it’s possible. We’re young, but we’ve taken a lot of small learning bumps across the course of the season.”

McGraw credits her players’ ability to compete on both sides of the ball for Notre Dame’s success this season.

Despite facing No. 1 seed Connecticut (29-1, 16-0) twice during the regular season, a favorable schedule has positioned the Irish well for the postseason.

“We had a really good schedule,” McGraw said. “We played a lot of the teams right behind us at home. We played the teams ahead of us on the road. It was kind of an interesting schedule for us. We got the opportunity to really see what it’s going to be in a hostile environment, and now we can take that to Hartford with us.”

Notre Dame hits the court Sunday at 8 p.m. for a chance to play in the semifinals Monday at 8 p.m. The championship game takes place Tuesday at 7 p.m.