ND Women’s Basketball
Hadley: Notre Dame playing under no pressure
Greg Hadley | Thursday, April 2, 2015
The last two Final Fours, Notre Dame had a clear mission: win one for the seniors. Win one for Skylar or Kayla and Natalie. Top Connecticut for a fourth time or finish off that undefeated season. Don’t go home disappointed and defeated. Finish the job.
No such pressure will exist in Tampa, Florida, this year. The Irish are playing with house money, at least as much as any team reaching its fifth straight Final Four can. Connecticut is such an overwhelming favorite, and Notre Dame is young and relatively unexperienced.
The Huskies have already dominated the Irish this season. In fact, they’ve just about dominated everyone in sight. South Carolina had no chance. The entire American Athletic Conference (AAC) was swept away. Their first three NCAA tournament opponents lost by an average of more than 47 points.
Rest assured, Geno Auriemma and UConn can handle the pressure that comes with being a front runner. They’ve been there and done it, over and over and over, ad nauseam.
But for an Irish squad still struggling to get over the hump and win its first title in more than a decade, the lack of pressure is a wonderful thing. It’s a weight off Muffet McGraw’s shoulders, a freedom from urgency that could make a significant difference.
When a team succeeds yet falls short as many times as Notre Dame has the past four years, there is no questioning both its talent and its motivation. But with each passing year, as the Irish watch the championship go to someone else, it is not unreasonable to ask when the pressure to capture that elusive title might finally get to them.
But the Irish don’t feel any pressure. Not this year.
With three new starters to begin the season, McGraw hit the reset button on her expectations. Without a definitive senior leader on the court, she said the Irish were bound to experience more difficulty than they had in a long time. For the first season since 2010-2011, it was not, “Championship or bust.”
Of course, when Brianna Turner and Taya Reimer came to Notre Dame, they certainly expected to compete for championships every year. But the fact that McGraw was willing to ease her demanding standards, even by the smallest of margins, meant her team could play relaxed and comfortable basketball, not paralyzed with fear of ever making a mistake.
That is where the Irish stand this weekend. They are experienced enough not to be overwhelmed by the big stage but young enough to know this is not their final shot. But does that mean they can finally win a national championship?
Any argument for the Irish winning based on the fact that they are the overwhelming underdogs with nothing to lose can be countered by the simple fact that Connecticut is the favorite for a reason, just as there is a reason youthful teams like Notre Dame are not expected to succeed: They typically don’t. Connecticut has earned the respect of every fan, coach and player in the game.
But respect does not equate to fear. And Notre Dame can enter this Final Four without fear. McGraw’s squad does not need to win to have had a successful season. And, ironically enough, that may be the reason the Irish could win. If they can ignore the weight of recent history and push past the media accounts of their epic rivalry with the Huskies, if they can play freely, they have a chance.
But if they allow themselves to get swept up in the heady excitement of the Final Four, if they start thinking about the historic implications an NCAA title would have, the Irish could just as easily find themselves on the losing end of a national semifinal against a very dangerous South Carolina team.
What Notre Dame is playing for this year is not as clear as seasons past. It’s a fine balance between using history as motivation and simply playing for oneself. It’s a mind game that gets more difficult the longer you think about it.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.