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ND Women’s Basketball

O’Boyle: Forget UConn, it’s time to believe in the Irish

| Friday, December 1, 2017

In most ways, the stars aren’t exactly aligned for an Irish victory on Sunday.

There’s the string of road games that have led to this one: South Bend to Kentucky. Kentucky to Oregon. Oregon to South Florida. South Florida to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor to Connecticut.

That sounds unappealing enough.

And in case that wasn’t enough, Notre Dame will be playing the fifth ranked team in six games this Sunday, with one of those four already being defending national champions South Carolina.

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard Jackie Young dribbles up the floor during Notre Dame’s 121-65 win over Mount St. Mary’s on Nov. 11 in Purcell Pavilion.

The Irish have done it all with a depleted team, with star senior forward Brianna Turner and senior guard Mychal Johnson out for the season, while senior forward Kathryn Westbeld still isn’t fully back to her best as she continues to recover from injuries and now freshman center Mikayla Vaughn, who missed Notre Dame’s win over No. 22 Michigan, is now set to miss the season as well with a knee injury.

And in case you forgot, that final ranked team they’re playing at the end of this trip isn’t just another good team: It’s the team that’s dominated this sport in recent years in a way that’s transcended basketball and left people asking if they’re the greatest dynasty of all time, in any sport.

This Connecticut team, despite an injury to arguably their best player in junior forward Katie Lou Samuelson, looks better than last year’s iteration and could challenge the 2015-16 team for the best team the Huskies have ever had.

Connecticut is more talented than Notre Dame.

The Huskies are playing at home.

They should be better rested, both because they’ve had one extra day since their last game and because they played unranked Michigan State and Nevada in the past week, while the Irish played the Gamecocks and the Wolverines.

And almost every time Connecticut plays a good team, someone will be able to dream up a reason why maybe this matchup suits the underdog.

Much more often than not, those reasons aren’t enough.

But this year?

Well, most of the evidence would say probably more of the same.

The Irish right now, despite having a better win, probably aren’t a better team than the one that lost to Connecticut at home a year ago. Losing your best player to injury and graduating your star point guard is a more or less guaranteed step down.

But watch this team play, and it becomes so easy to believe that maybe they’ll be the ones beat the Huskies on the road, something the Irish haven’t done since the 2013 Big East Tournament.

As much as you know this hype comes around every year, this team makes you forget any rationality about how hard it is to beat the best team in this sport.

Last year’s team was picked by many (including the preseason AP Poll) to dethrone Connecticut because they were loaded with talent, both in the starting five and on the bench.

With this team? Not for any reasons that stack up nearly as well, but because this is just one of the most exciting teams Muffet McGraw has had in her now more than 30 years here.

The Irish offense may not be ranked in the top 10 in the nation this year by scoring, but when you look at the team’s they’ve played, including the stout defenses of Michigan, South Florida and Oregon State, you can see that it’s better than its point total for the season suggests. Or you can just see them get to work.

Sophomore guard Jackie Young’s step up this year has helped forge the new Irish identity, alongside junior guard Arike Ogunbowale’s combination of slashing and shooting. Junior guard Marina Mabrey is scoring below her season average so far, but you know she should still possess the ability to turn it back on — when she gets the ball at the arc, she still seems like a danger. Defensively, it’s not a finished project but it’s still a Muffet McGraw team.

This team may suffer its first loss of the season on Sunday. And that’s fine, 6-1 with a win over South Carolina is a success for this road trip by any reasonable definition.

But during the game, get ready to see a Notre Dame team that shows flashes of something more.

And truth be told, a team that feels like it can beat the best of the best for flashes can be good enough right now, because with a bit more time and coaching from McGraw, the Irish would be right on track to make a real statement in March.

So if you start believing in this team on Sunday and they can’t pull out the win in the end, that’s fine. Because this could be a team to really believe in by the end of the season.

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

About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel