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Final Four Preview: No Introductions Required

March 29, 2018

Irish Final Four Central

By John Heisler

Spare all the numbers.

University of Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw doesn’t need the Connecticut game notes.

She doesn’t need to be reminded that the Huskies are unbeaten (at 36-0) and have been for a while.

She already has heard that UConn leads the nation in scoring (89.4 points per game) and defeats opponents by an average of 37.1 points per game (also tops in the country).

She’s been reminded that the Huskies also are the best shooting team in the country (.534 field-goal percentage) and pace all other teams in assist-turnover ratio (plus-1.88)

The Notre Dame-UConn rivalry is not ongoing in quite the same way–not like in the old days of the Big East when the Irish and Huskies might play four times in a single season (they did that three years in a row–in 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13).

The Irish have moved on to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Huskies to the American Athletic Conference. But, even at once per regular season now, this remains a juicy matchup with as much depth, history and regular drama as any in the women’s hoops game.

They’ll do it again in the late national semifinal game Friday at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.

Irish fans will harken back to landmark Notre Dame series wins: the 2001 regular-season meeting in South Bend (the first Irish series win after 11 defeats), the NCAA national semifinal victory in that same Notre Dame national title season, two more NCAA semifinal wins in 2011 and 2012 and a run of seven Irish triumphs in eight games from 2010-11 through 2012-13.

Geno Auriemma’s program has flipped the script of late, currently winning seven straight since Notre Dame’s last series success in the 2013 Big East Tournament title game when the Irish were ranked second and UConn third (and Notre Dame won 61-59).

While few challengers have been effective this year against the Huskies, Texas gave UConn its “closest” win at 75-71 in mid-January in Austin. The Irish were next, falling 80-71 in Hartford on the first Sunday in December in a game the Irish led by as many as a dozen points (late in the first half) and by 62-54 after three periods.

Expect both head coaches and their staffs to go to school on what happened in those first three periods–and what turned it around for UConn in the final quarter.

In a rather bizarre sense, the Irish head into Final Four play Friday night as a number-one seed and the Spokane Regional champion–yet Notre Dame (33-3) has as many losses as the rest of the field combined, with all three to teams alive in Columbus.

Irish junior guard Marina Mabrey will try to recreate the touch that allowed her to lead the Irish with 21 points (four of nine from three-point range) on that Sunday afternoon in Hartford.

McGraw will remind her players that they didn’t see the real Gabby Williams who had only two points on one-for-seven shooting in December and sat out the second half with a migraine headache.

UConn prevailed in the December meeting with the Irish thanks to a big-time fourth-quarter rally (the Huskies outscored Notre Dame 26-9).

Yet the Irish have been just as impressive with outstanding second-half performances in their last three outings:

–Against Villanova in the second round, Notre Dame allowed 10 three-pointers in the first half, then permitted none in the final 20 minutes while outscoring the Wildcats 53-27 after intermission.

–Against Texas A&M in the regional semifinals, the Irish trailed by two at halftime and then limited the Aggies to six-of-22 third-period shooting on their way to a nine-point lead in the middle of the final quarter.

–Against second-seeded Oregon in the regional title game Monday night, Notre Dame trailed by six at half and then permitted the Ducks only eight second-half field goals (after 20 by Oregon in the opening two periods).

The level of the Notre Dame-UConn rivalry is evidenced by the fact that all six previous NCAA meetings between these programs came in the Final Four–four in the the national semifinals (including the Irish wins in 2001, 2011 and 2012 in overtime) and a pair of UConn victories in title games (2014 in Nashville and 2015 in Tampa).

In five of those six meetings both Notre Dame and UConn came in as number-one seeds. In 2011, the Irish were “only” a two seed.

UConn has lost only 18 times in its NCAA history–with three of those accomplished by Notre Dame (Tennessee and Stanford both defeated the Huskies twice).

Meanwhile, UConn and Tennessee both have defeated the Irish three times in NCAA action to headline the chart of teams that have eliminated Notre Dame.

Leading these programs are two Hall of Famers and giants in women’s basketball coaching–Auriemma in his 33rd year in Storrs and McGraw in her 31st in South Bend.

In this decade alone UConn has won 46 NCAA games. The Irish have won 35. Those are remarkable figures by any account.

Auriemma Thursday noted that he and McGraw chatted about their programs’ high-level consistency Wednesday night at the NCAA Salute event at the Columbus Museum of Art.

“They’re not going away,” he said. “We’re not going away.

“She knows and I know we’re always there and they’re always there.

“After every game in December I say to her, `I’ll see you in March. Because I know if I see you in March, it’s going to be at the Final Four.'”

McGraw, who received yet another national coach-of-the-year award late Thursday afternoon (this one from Associated Press–the fourth time she has won that honor), liked many of the things her team did in December in competing against UConn and hopes that contest can serve as a reference point for the Irish:

“I think we could take a lot from that to see where we went wrong. And I think we’ve changed some things since then that have helped us.”

McGraw appreciates all her current team has done to surmount what seemed like an unending series of mostly injury-related hurdles.

“I think this is one of the most rewarding (Final Fours) since ’97, when we were a six seed and completely unexpected to get here.

“This has definitely been one where we’ve really worked hard for it.”

And she doesn’t need a Huskie stat sheet to anticipate just how hard her Irish will have to work on Friday night.