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ND Women’s Basketball

Jacobsen: Before UConn, ND should fear Terps (April 4)

| Thursday, April 3, 2014

One of the most disappointing aspects of Notre Dame’s move to the ACC was the end of the conference rivalry between Connecticut and Notre Dame. After years of utter dominance by the Huskies, Irish coach Muffet McGraw and her charges had begun to turn the tide in recent seasons.

These women’s basketball powerhouses met four times last season: Twice during conference play, once in the Big East tournament final and once in the national semifinal. The 2012-13 Irish eeked out two games by razor-thin margins (three points total) and won another in triple overtime, but the Huskies got the last word in the Final Four, winning by 18 on the way to their eighth national championship.

After last year’s epic saga, fans were deprived this year of a matchup between the two schools, undoubtedly the two best teams in women’s basketball by a large margin.

Now that both No. 1 seeds are undefeated heading into the Final Four, let’s face it: Outside of those in Maryland and northern California, UConn-Notre Dame is the final matchup we all want to see.

But before we get too excited about the first meeting of unbeaten teams in tournament final history, there’s something we should remember. The Irish — and the Huskies for that matter — actually have to win their games Sunday night. And that is hardly a given.

There’s no getting around the fact the Irish (36-0, 16-0 ACC) are a weaker team now that senior forward Natalie Achonwa is out with a torn ACL. And the fourth-seeded Terrapins (28-6, 12-4 ACC) gave a full-strength Irish plenty of trouble when they met in conference play Jan. 27. The Irish left the Comcast Center in College Park, Md., with a four-point win — by far their narrowest margin of victory this season — but not before letting a 22-point lead dissolve in the second half.

The good news for Notre Dame fans is that Achonwa got into foul trouble and scored only seven points in 21 minutes during that game, which means the Irish found a way to edge out the Terrapins without relying on the senior. The bad news is that the Terps have only gotten better since then.

During a teleconference Wednesday afternoon, McGraw said the game appeared to be a turning point for the Maryland team and Lexie Brown in particular, saying the loss was a “catalyst” for the freshman guard’s development as a player.

McGraw made no secret of how impressed she has been by Maryland’s performance so far in tournament. After beating perennial power Tennessee in the Sweet 16, the Terrapins had to face No. 3 seed Louisville on the Cardinals’ home court. The Terps silenced the 14,002-strong crowd with a 20-4 run in the second half and held on for the win despite three straight 3-pointers from Louisville star Shoni Schimmel in the final minute of the game. It’s no wonder McGraw describes Maryland as a “dangerous” team to face.

The Irish still have a good chance of beating the Terps and earning another spot in that national championship game. Although sophomore guard Jewell Loyd and senior guard Kayla McBride scored a combined 51 points and sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey hit several clutch 3-pointers in Notre Dame’s win over Maryland earlier this season, the Irish did not get much production from the rest of the team. A big night from the bench or a stretch of bad shooting by the Terrapins could easily swing the game in Notre Dame’s favor. But maybe the Irish should fear the Turtle, just a little bit.

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

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