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ND Women’s Basketball

O’Boyle: Matchup with UConn about Notre Dame’s future as much as result

| Thursday, March 29, 2018

You never count UConn out. They’re considered among the greatest teams in the history of any sport for a reason.

But with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and both of the Huskies’ best players leaving the game, the Irish were, for just a brief moment of Dec. 3’s regular-season meeting between Notre Dame and Connecticut, unequivocally favorites to close it out.

And they still couldn’t do it. A team without Gabby Williams and essentially without Katie Lou Samuelson  — the final 14 seconds didn’t really make a difference — closed the game on a 26-6 run to beat the Irish.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer

Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale attacks the basket off the dribble during Notre Dame’s 84-74 win over Oregon on Monday in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

Yes, most teams can’t pull the top high school recruit in the nation and a 6-foot-6 forward who averages 14.6 points per game off the bench; yes, the migraine that took Williams out also led to her playing one of the worst games of her career while she was on the court; and yes, the Huskies played phenomenally during that run. But the Irish were still in a position where they looked more likely than not to defeat a team that may end up going down as the greatest of all time.

And they didn’t.

Coming off an extended road trip that took them to Kentucky, all the way across the nation to Oregon, then all the way to Florida and then to Michigan without a home game in between before they played the Huskies and while still adjusting to life without Brianna Turner, Notre Dame probably shouldn’t have been in such a good position, but there they were.

Until they weren’t.

Now, the two teams meet again, and the Irish probably won’t have the same opportunity to win. Maybe Notre Dame will keep the game close most of the way, and maybe the Irish will find themselves in a big hole that they almost pull themselves out of before falling short, but the chances are slim they see a situation like the one they had in the regular season. And with the injuries they’ve suffered and the quality of opposition they’re facing, that’s completely okay. Nobody expects this team to win. Many didn’t expect them to make it this far, so an upset would be a huge bonus at the end of a season that’s already a success.

But as fans of the Irish football team have become prone to saying every single November, next year will be different. Returning four starters plus getting Turner back should give Notre Dame one of its best-ever teams on paper.

Or it could be, if the Irish don’t let their biggest rival become a mental roadblock.

Earlier in the season, I said the regular-season matchup could be the learning moment for the Irish and this tournament one could be where they spring an upset. A couple more injuries later and that seems unlikely, but it’s clear the Irish still need the experience of playing Geno Auriemma’s team. The Irish used to be UConn’s achilles heel, but that feels like ages ago. Getting that reputation back could start now with some evidence the Irish players still have the confidence the likes of Skylar Diggins, Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride had. Yes, they’re underdogs, but Notre Dame needs to play this game with the attitude it has against any other team.

This year will always be a great triumph for the Irish, but blowing a chance to beat this iteration of this dynasty is the one huge disappointment, overshadowing even the blowout loss to Louisville or the failure to win the ACC tournament. The Irish played superbly without much pressure, then lost it when the pressure was on. After the game, head coach Muffet McGraw was quick to note that tiredness wasn’t the problem, they just missed shots they shouldn’t have.

That’s what happens when nerves get the best of you.

Something similar happened during last year’s regular season, when the Irish couldn’t make their shots against the most beatable Huskies team in half a decade. And if the Irish get too caught up in the occasion this year, it could happen again. The tournament may be “win or go home,” but playing hard and losing to an exceptional team isn’t the same as ending the season with the feeling a monumental victory got away from you had you just played your normal game.

Obviously, McGraw won’t have her team thinking about this. She’ll just be doing whatever she can to help her team beat the Huskies. But if Notre Dame does go home, let’s hope it’s because an all-time great squad beat a vastly-depleted underdog, not because the Irish beat themselves.

And hey, if they really can get back to playing their best game for 40 minutes against the Huskies, maybe that’ll be enough for an Irish win. You can’t count this team out, either.

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

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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