March 6, 2001
AP-Notre Dame finally got a victory over Connecticut during the regular season. Now the Fighting Irish will try to break through in the Big East tournament.
The No. 1 spot in the country will be on the line when the top-ranked Fighting Irish and No. 2 Huskies meet Tuesday night in the Big East championship game at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
Notre Dame (28-1) was 0-for-11 against Connecticut (27-2) before its 92-76 victory on Jan. 15. That gave the Irish the head-to-head tiebreaker and made them the top seed for the Big East tournament after the teams tied for the regular-season title.
But the Irish still have to find a way to beat the Huskies in the tournament. UConn defeated Notre Dame in the 1996, ’97 and ’99 championship games, and ousted the Irish in the ’98 semifinals.
Of course, Notre Dame isn’t the only team that hasn’t defeated UConn in the Big East tournament. The Huskies have won the last seven titles and haven’t lost a game in the tourney since falling to Providence in the 1993 semifinals.
The Huskies advanced to this year’s championship game with a 94-66 victory over No. 8 Rutgers on Monday night. Swin Cash scored 20 points and freshman Diana Taurasi added 17 for UConn, which had to overcome a 90-minute delay after the roof began to leak late in the first half.
“We played really good,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I was telling my players, that’s probably the best we’ve played in the whole 40 minutes in a long time.”
Now the Huskies will try to make amends for what they felt was one of their worst performances. UConn allowed Notre Dame to shoot 56.9 percent in the regular-season meeting and had no answer for Irish center Ruth Riley, who had 29 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“Last time we played them was definitely one of the most disappointing losses,” senior Shea Ralph said. “We competed in a disappointing way. We learned and became tougher and stronger every day.”
Notre Dame hasn’t even needed Riley, the Big East Player of the Year, in its first two games. She has totaled just 11 points and 15 rebounds while averaging under 20 minutes per game, but the Irish have won the two games by a combined 74 points.
The Irish posted a 67-49 victory over Virginia Tech in the other semifinal. Alicia Ratay and Kelley Simeon scored 14 points apiece for Notre Dame, which used a strong defense to key the victory.
Notre Dame held Virginia Tech to 27 percent shooting from the field, compensating for Riley being held to two points as she battled foul trouble throughout the game.
“We went to the zone to see how it looked and it looked good. We decided to stay with it,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “It has been our best defense all year long and we did a good job of doubling down.”
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, whose team handed Notre Dame its only loss, thinks UConn will end up with another Big East title.
“It will be close, but I think Connecticut will be able to win because it can go any way they want it to,” she said. “They can slow it down or hit you with a flurry of 3s.”