March 29, 2001

By The Associated Press

GAME: No. 1 Notre Dame (32-2) vs. No. 1 Connecticut (32-2). National Semifinal
TIME: Friday, 9:30 p.m. EST.
SITE: Savvis Center, St. Louis.

Once again, Notre Dame’s road to a championship could be blocked by Connecticut.

Trying to reach their first national title game, the Fighting Irish have to get by their Big East rivals as they face the defending national champion Huskies in the second national semifinal.

Every time the Irish have been on the verge of a championship, the Huskies seem to be in their way. Notre Dame has reached the Big East championship game four times, with each ending in a loss to Connecticut.

The Irish finally beat the Huskies for the first time on Jan. 15, snapping UConn’s 30-game winning streak with a 92-76 victory and earning the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history.

Connecticut avenged that loss on March 6, winning 78-76 in the Big East tournament championship game on Sue Bird’s jumper at the buzzer.

UConn has had no answer in either game for Ruth Riley, the player of the year in women’s basketball. The 6-foot-5 center had 29 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in the first game, then added 23 points and nine boards in the second meeting. She has made 16 of 24 shots in the two games.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, will have to counter UConn’s outstanding backcourt of Bird and freshman Diana Taurasi. Taurasi averaged 20.5 points in the last two games and was the most outstanding player of the East Regional, while Bird scored 25 points combined in the last two contests.

Bird and Taurasi have stepped up in place of injured All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph, who are gone for the season. Taurasi was also the MVP of the Big East tournament, and her 3-point shooting will be key against Notre Dame’s strong zone defense.

“Any time you lose two first-team All-Americans, you better replace them with someone really, really good,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I knew we were OK. I knew who we had left. As long as we have those two guys in the backcourt handling the ball, we’re going to be OK.”

Despite the injuries, the defending national champions are back in the Final Four for the fifth time since 1991. They have won 10 straight NCAA tournament games, one short of the school record set in 1995-96.

“We’re going back to the Final Four and that’s hard to do,” Bird said. “I think a lot of people didn’t believe we could do it when we lost our two All-Americans.”

Notre Dame reached its only other Final Four in 1997, losing to eventual champion Tennessee. The Irish feel they are better this time.

“I think this team is so prepared, in terms of the places that we have played,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “When you go to big arenas and you have a great crowd, I think it really prepares you for what you are going to face, and I think that we are a lot more ready for this than they were in 1997.”

They also are very talented. Riley is complemented by point guard Niele Ivey, another All-American and St. Louis native who averages 7.1 assists. Fellow guard Alicia Ratay is the nation’s best 3-point shooter, hitting 54.7 percent.

This is the second year in a row the Big East has landed two teams in the Final Four. UConn was joined by Rutgers in 2000.

The winner will play either Purdue or Southwest Missouri State in Sunday night’s championship game.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Notre Dame – F Kelley Siemon (11.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), F Ericka Haney (10.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), C Ruth Riley (18.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg), G Niele Ivey (11.8 ppg, 7.1 apg), G Alicia Ratay (13.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg). Connecticut – F Asjha Jones (8.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg), F Swin Cash (12.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), C Kelly Schumacher (6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg), G Bird (10.6 ppg, 5.0 apg), G Taurasi (11.2 ppg, 3.3 apg).

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Notre Dame – At-large bid, Big East, beat Alcorn State 98-49, first round, beat Michigan 88-54, second round, beat Utah 69-54, Midwest Regional semifinal, beat Vanderbilt 72-64, regional final. Connecticut – Automatic bid, Big East tournament champion, beat Long Island University 101-29, first round, beat Colorado State 89-44, second round, beat North Carolina State 72-58, East Regional semifinal, beat Louisiana Tech 67-48, regional final.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Notre Dame – 14-7, 8 years. Connecticut – 35-10, 13 years.