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Preview: Can Irish Muster Energy to 'Do It Again'?

March 31, 2018

Irish NCAA Tournament Central

By John Heisler

If University of Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and her team just exhausted themselves in pulling out all the stops, making memorable play after even-more memorable play, did that nearly until the stroke of midnight Friday and then expended whatever energy and emotion were left in the postgame celebration, what’s comes next?

In the 1972 words of Steely Dan on its “Can’t Buy a Thrill” debut studio album, you simply “Do It Again.”

That will be some part of the challenge Sunday night for both McGraw and Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer–after both their teams needed overtime last night in Columbus to advance into the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship title game.

If McGraw and her Irish thought beating unbeaten and top-rated Connecticut ranked as the gold standard for achievements, Sunday’s assignment must grade somewhere in that same neighborhood.

The Bulldogs represent yet another number-one seed, thanks to a gaudy 37-1 record (already the most wins in program history). That lone loss came versus defending NCAA champion South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game.

In some circles this will be billed as a duel of smallish, giant-killing guards:

–There’s Mississippi State’s 5-5 senior Morgan William whose jump shot a year ago at the buzzer in overtime in the national semifinals dispatched an unbeaten Connecticut team.

–There’s Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale, the 5-8 junior who matched that with her own ultra-dramatic UConn-defeating shot Friday night at the end of an overtime session.

Then, for McGraw and her staff, there’s the scary specter of 6-7 Mississippi State junior center Teaira McCowan. McGraw Saturday called defending McCowan “literally a tall order.”

McCowan’s 25 rebounds (she also scored 21 points) Friday night against number-one seed Louisville represented two fewer than the all-time single-game NCAA Championship record (27 by Anriel Howard of Texas A&M in 2016).

McCowan had seven rebounds alone in the five-minute overtime period Friday as the Bulldogs won by 10 in a game in which they missed their first 10 shots. She has 92 rebounds in five 2018 NCAA games, already a tournament record.

The Irish might have earned a speeding ticket Friday on their way to scoring more points than any Connecticut team had permitted in 17 years. And what do they do for an encore after combining with UConn for the highest-scoring game in the history of the NCAA Women’s Final Four?

Mississippi State had to regroup for the championship game a year ago after a similarly draining yet monumental semifinal win over Connecticut (and the Bulldogs fell 67-55 to South Carolina in that 2017 title contest).

Said Schaefer Saturday: “I thought last year we got beat because we looked tired the second day.”

McGraw’s Irish have that same challenge in 2018:

“In 2011 (after a 72-63 NCAA semifinal victory over the 36-1 Huskies in Indianapolis) we were done, we were spent,” she said Saturday. “That was all the emotion we had.

“Any time you beat Connecticut based on the dominance of their program it’s just such an emotional win. It makes it hard to get back to work.

“You feel like that should have been the championship game. You’re thinking, `We should be going home right now.'”

McGraw and her assistants know the type of intense defensive pressure they expect to see from the Bulldogs–given that Schaefer was head coach at Texas A&M in that same 2011 season when his Aggies defeated Notre Dame 76-70 in the national title matchup (he left after the following season to take the Mississippi State job).

Plenty of enticing questions will be answered Sunday night:

–How well can 6-4 Notre Dame post Jessica Shepard (with expected help from 6-4 Kristina Nelson) hope to defend McCowan on the boards? The Irish absolutely understand they probably would not be anywhere near Columbus if not for Shepard whose 2017-18 eligibility was not approved by the NCAA until the day of Notre Dame’s exhibition game Nov. 1. Only a season ago in 2016-17 two-time all-Big Ten pick Shepard played on a Nebraska team that won only seven games.

–What sort of defensive package will the Bulldogs concoct for Irish standout Jackie Young (McGraw Saturday called her the Irish “secret weapon”) after her outsized 32-point effort against the Huskies Friday night?

–Will Marina Mabrey, blanketed by UConn during much of their Friday semifinal meeting (she was three for 10 shooting and one of seven from long distance for seven points), find her range and threaten the NCAA Championship record for threes (she’s four away from the 22 UConn’s Kia Nurse nailed in 2017)?

–How will Notre Dame attempt to thwart 6-1 Bulldog guard Victoria Vivians who had 25 points Friday against Louisville?

As Schaefer noted Saturday, “The only thing worse than playing Connecticut is playing the team that beat them.”

Sunday ultimately may be a war of attrition. Four Notre Dame starters played 43 or more minutes versus Connecticut. Nelson’s 11 minutes off the bench represented the lone contribution outside the Irish starting lineup.

One of these teams ultimately will shrug off the late-night celebrations, the extended media obligations and autograph sessions to muster up enough juice to win Sunday night.

For Notre Dame, in its fifth NCAA title game in eight seasons, it’s all about finding a way to do it again one last time.

“We have another 40 minutes to put our whole heart into it,” said Mabrey.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Irish sports scene since 1978.