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Sammon: Final four competition poses challenge for Irish (March 30)

Molly Sammon | Friday, March 30, 2012

Here come the Irish to the Final Four, and here come the nail-biting, down-to-the-buzzer games Irish fans have been waiting for since the tournament began.

It’s about time they get a real soul-shaking 40 minutes of play in the most important part of their season.

These – potential – two games won’t disappoint, whether the Irish reach their goal of tournament champions or if they fall short. Notre Dame has old conference tension to break open against Connecticut. This team is incredibly hungry for a championship, which will fuel them into the finals.

No matter the outcome, Notre Dame’s season will end here with a pressure-filled contest, in the truest sense of the word. In entirely predictable fashion, all No. 1 seeds and the top four teams in the polls made it this far, and they promise to not make it easy for the Irish anymore.

Notre Dame won by 30 points or more in three of the four contests it took to get to Denver and was comfortably leading at halftime in two of those. Sure, Cal was even with the Irish mid-game in the second round back at home to light a little fire under Notre Dame’s feet. But after a good talking-to at halftime, the Irish escaped the pressure and unleashed the true character of their relentless defense, recorded multiple steals and rebounded better.

Now they are surrounded by the elite company that their play resembled all season, with teams they know, teams they have seen and teams that deserve to be there just as much as the Notre Dame deserves to be there.

Two of Notre Dame’s three losses this season came at the hands of teams represented in the trifecta of tournament top-seeds, once faltering against all-too-familiar Connecticut in the postseason and letting Baylor taint the loss column on their record early last November.

These are teams that not only can beat the Irish, but have proven it as well. In the Final Four, there should not be any more blowout wins, no more games where a combination of their usual rebounding techniques and good offensive management by each of their four guards on the court can run away with a lead as soon as the ball is tipped.

Against Maryland, they executed this perfectly with hardly a flaw in their play and structure, and a triple-double for Diggins. They made a victory over No. 2 seed Maryland, the ACC conference tournament champions who held an obvious height advantage, look far easier than expected.

They ran away with the game like it was the first of the tournament, not a regional final where teams have to not only work hard and show poise, but fight off a team that shares the court as their relative equal.

Conference foe Connecticut will want to shake Notre Dame first, in their fourth and final time the Irish will play their Big East rival this season with the veteran team they have now.

Senior guards Natalie Novosel and Fraderica Miller and graduate students guard Brittany Mallory and forward Devereaux Peters have one last chance to play the once-invincible team before they graduate. It follows that it will be either the most important or the second more important game of their last season with an Irish jersey on their backs.

In the Big East tournament final, Connecticut gave the Irish one of the rare chances to feel the real and raw panic associated with losing. Not just a shot-for-shot final few minutes where the Irish had a chance to win, but the feeling of being down by 10 points or more and knowing that losing was inevitable.

They will see that same encompassing panic one more time, but now it will be magnified as the importance grows. If the Irish want to reach their goal of returning to South Bend and graduate this senior class with a national championship, they will need to show the utmost composure, even if they are down by 10.

One of the benefits of playing on a Final Four team is not having to play through many discouraging situations. But in this year’s finals, stacked with the teams who have been on top all year, Notre Dame will need to learn how and learn it quickly.

Contact Molly Sammon at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.