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Nothing to lose’

Laura Myers | Sunday, April 3, 2011

If Notre Dame is feeling the pressure leading up to its first Final Four appearance in a decade, against a top-ranked Connecticut team, Muffet McGraw and her squad aren’t showing it.

The team laughed and played around during its one-hour open practice Saturday, and made jokes during the press conference afterward, all while talking about the importance of staying loose.

“The pressure is squarely on Connecticut,” McGraw said. “… We have nothing to lose, and that’s where we’re coming from.”

The Irish and the Huskies have already met three times this season, with Connecticut winning each game.

This gives the two teams a level of familiarity not normally seen at this point in the season.

“Scouting reports and that kind of stuff are pretty much out the window,” Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said.

Because each team knows the other’s strengths and weaknesses, Auriemma said, the game will come down to who executes the little things better.

“From the coaching standpoint, there’s not much we can do at this point,” he said.

Notre Dame and Connecticut first played Jan. 8 in South Bend, and the Irish fell 79-76 in the last seconds.

Their next game, in Storrs, Conn., on Feb. 19, wasn’t nearly as close, with the Irish losing 78-57.

They met for the third time in the Big East championship in Hartford, Conn., when Notre Dame kept it close until the Huskies made a second-half run to win it 73-64.

At the beginning of the NCAA tournament, McGraw said the Big East tournament had given the team momentum.

That force has continued to build through four NCAA games, leading to a 25-point victory over Oklahoma and a 73-59 win over No. 1-seed Tennessee.

Senior guard Brittany Mallory hit six 3-pointers and scored 20 points against Oklahoma, while sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins had 12 assists. Against Tennessee, Diggins scored 24. Junior guard Natalie Novosel scored 15 against Oklahoma and 17 against the Volunteers.

In both games, four Irish players scored in double digits. The number of weapons Notre Dame has could hurt the Huskies, who play with just six players after injuries depleted their bench.

“We have a great defender in [guard] Kelly Faris,” Auriemma said. “If she could guard Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel, I’d say we’re going to kill them.”

Auriemma expressed worry that the pressure would get to his two freshmen starters, point guard Bria Hartley and center Stefanie Dolson.

“No matter how much you try to prepare them for it and work on certain things and talk to them or what their teammates say to them, when the opening tip goes up at 9:30-something tomorrow night, you’re going to have two kids out there that are going to be a little bit jittery,” he said.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is taking a lead from senior captain Becca Bruszewski.

“Business on the court, the complete opposite off the court,” Bruszewski said.

Notre Dame and Connecticut tip off at 9:30 p.m. at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The game will be televised on ESPN.