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Irish set for rematch with rival Huskies in Final Four

| Thursday, March 29, 2018

For the fourth time in tournament history and the first time since 2015, all four No. 1 seeds have made it to the Final Four in this year’s NCAA tournament. And that group includes the Irish, as they were able to get through their region after a two-year dry spell to return once again to the Final Four, this time with a matchup against No. 1 overall seed UConn awaiting them Friday night.

The road to Columbus, Ohio, was not easy for the Irish (33-3, 15-1). They had to overcome two halftime deficits in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight to advance out of the Spokane region. This past Saturday, Notre Dame found itself down by as many as 13 in the second quarter to fourth-seeded Texas A&M, but a surge from that point on propelled the Irish past the Aggies (26-10, 11-5 SEC) for a 90-84 win.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior guard Marina Mabrey drives towards the basket during Notre Dame’s 84-74 win over Oregon on Monday in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

On Monday, the Irish drew a tough matchup against second-seeded Oregon, a contest made even tougher given the de facto home-court advantage the Ducks (33-5, 16-2 Pac-12) had playing the Elite Eight contest in the Pacific Northwest. But Notre Dame battled through another second-quarter deficit — this time trailing by as many as nine — to come out on top, 84-74. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said she has been proud of her team’s resilience all year and the effort her players have given to get back to the Final Four.

“We keep shaking our heads. I think I’m kind of torn between crying and laughing,” McGraw said. “It means so much. There’s so much emotion because of what we’ve been through. The resilience of this team, how they just are relentless in pursuit of their goal — they didn’t ever quit or question whether or not we could do it. Just to have that experience of getting to the Final Four, you need to have those experienced players to keep your program going. Now, we have freshmen who have been to the Final Four. That’s going to help us in the long run.”

The road ahead does not get easier for the Irish, as they now have a run-in with the tournament’s top overall seed in UConn. After falling in an upset to Mississippi State in last year’s Final Four, the Huskies (36-0, 16-0 American) have come back with a vengeance this season. They are undefeated on the year and enter the national-semifinal contest having just defeated second-seeded South Carolina by 29 points, 94-65. The Huskies have won the last seven matchups between the two programs, including one Dec. 3 of this year in which the Irish saw a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter slip away in an 80-71 loss. McGraw said she believes the strong rivalry between these two teams stems from their days in the Big East as well as the recent position as underdog her team has been put in.

“Yeah, that was definitely a lot of fun being in the Big East, playing them,” she said. “I know two years in a row, we played them four times. Just really created a great rivalry. We had some good games during that rivalry. Lately, we have not played as well, and they’ve definitely been the ones that have dominated the series. For us, I think it’s always been an exciting game. I think we are a team that wants to compete, and we are going to go in and play the underdog role this time.”

Should Notre Dame advance, it will play the winner of the other national semifinal between No. 1 seed Louisville, a team that has beaten the Irish twice this season, and No. 1 seed Mississippi State, who sits at 36-1 on the season. With nothing but elite teams remaining, McGraw said she knows her team will need to continue to play together if it is going to give itself a shot this weekend in Columbus.

“I would say that our building blocks now are about our culture. It’s about having high-character kids who care about each other and care about winning more than themselves,” McGraw said. “I think it’s an unselfish attitude that this team has. They’re a team of workers. They love being in the gym. They love being together. I think that kind of team-first attitude and the chemistry of our team has definitely been the most successful team that we’ve had.”

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