Notre Dame and Connecticut square off tonight with the biggest stakes up for grabs. It’s the fourth time this season that the 2 will square off. It’s kind of poetic for Notre Dame to be playing in its home state for the chance to play for a championship. It’s been 10 years since there last trip to the Final Four. The last time? All they did is win a National Championship.
Nostalgia is a great thing but it won’t grab a point or a rebound for the Fighting Irish when they face the Connecticut Huskies today in Indianapolis in the second semifinal. They are going to need a little Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey magic from 2001. They will have one though as Ivey is an assistant coach for the Irish.
UConn and Notre Dame have squared off three previous times this season. The Huskies have won all three contests but not one of those games were the typical Connecticut cakewalk.
UConn won the first game in South Bend, Indiana 79-76, coming from behind in the last minute on some late-game heroics by Maya Moore and Indiana native, Kelly Faris. It was a high paced game that saw Faris collect a career high 20 points and UConn freshmen win their first big road game in a hostile environment. Stefanie Dolson had a block, a huge rebound and two of the biggest free throws of her young care. Moore scored 31, including a fadeaway jumper with 50 seconds left to give UConn the lead. The Irish used a physical presence to force turnovers with their bigger more agile posts. But the player who hurt UConn the most was All-Big East guard Novosel who like Moore has the ability to hit big shots.
The 2nd game in the series saw UConn return to the comfy confines of Gampel Pavilion. This time it was another guard that led UConn. Freshman point Bria Hartley came into the game showing flashed of brilliance but she used the showdown with #8 Notre Dame to show her full array of skills. Hartley finished with a career high 29 points and showed why Geno Auriemma has said she reminds him of the great Diana Taurasi. The key to this victory though wasn’t on the offensive end. It was on the defensive end as they held Big East Defensive Player of the Year Devereaux Peters to 0 points, 0 blocks and 0 steals.
The 3rd game was for the Big East Championship and it was a typical Big East grind it out type of game. Dolson again proved her growth into a post presence is what differentiates this team from being good to being an elite team. UConn prevailed 73-64 thanks in part to the MOP-like play of the freshman center. While on the offensive side she had 24 points, again it was her work on the defensive end that made the difference for the Huskies. Moore like always was a steadying force for UConn which allowed Hartley another chance to shine and hit big shots.
The fourth game, tonight (9:35 ESPN) promises to be a barn burner. Notre Dame has an experienced squad that gets the pleasure to play in front of an arena that should have a lot of Blue and Gold (or Green?) . They also will have the crowd that just doesn’t want to see Connecticut win another championship. Notre Dame will have to keep Peters out of foul trouble. Notre Dame has lost these games simply because of their inability to keep her on the floor. Sophomore All-American Skyler Diggins also has to make her presence known. The Tennessee game was the ultimate example of the shots that she can hit and the impact that she can make. Notre Dame’s biggest advantage is in the post. They have not been able to take advantage of that fact, minus the first meeting in South Bend. That meeting was also before the emergence of Stefanie Dolson as one of the premier centers in the Big East.
UConn has Maya Moore and that has been enough for a lot of games this year. Tonight they are going to need a little more. Dolson has to continue to do what she has done every game since January. A double-double is an attainable goal for her every night no matter who the teams opposing center is and they will need that tonight.
Hartley has to be the solid rock that she has displayed in all the big games this year. Hit open shots but distribute the ball to people in places where they can make good decisions with it. Hartley has the demeanor of a cold blooded assassin most of the time. But Geno Auriemma was quoted as saying she is "excitable" at times. This isn’t the night to play outside of yourself or your abilities. Good thing for her is that her abilities are endless.
The biggest factor is Tiffany Hayes. I have said all season that this team’s final destination has less to do with Maya Moore or anyone in the post position and everything to do with what Tiffany Hayes shows up to the dance. Hayes has all the ability as anyone named to the All-American team this week. Her issue has been consistency. She can drive, she can shoot and she can defend. It’s getting her to do those things all the time. She can hang 31 in a half and then go scoreless for 30 minutes. The Huskies need a big game from her in order to march towards their 8th National Championship and 3rd in a row.
Four times in one season is a lot to play any team. Especially a team that is as smart and as good as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The things that you can take advantage of have a short shelf life with a team that has seen almost everything that you can do. Baylor found that out while playing Texas A&M for the fourth time, after winning the first three meetings. That familiarity is a double edged sword. Do you like the strangers you know or the strangers you don't know better?
Typically they say that the third time is the charm. Well Connecticut is hoping for their 3rd championship in a row. But Notre Dame is hoping it the magic of the four. They are hopeful that their fourth time taking on Goliath this season at the Final Four is the charm that they need.