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Can Notre Dame pull off the upset over Connecticut?

So many people were hoping and expecting Tennessee to make it to the Final Four with a potential matchup with Connecticut.  Just imagine the storylines, Meighan Simmons vs. Bria Hartley, the strained relationship between Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma. But there was one roadblock, Notre Dame - and after Notre Dame’s rather easy win, 73-59 over the # 1 seed, there were some surprising factors that influenced the easy victory for the Irish.

"I think we weren't the aggressors tonight," said Tennessee guard Angie Bjorklund. "I give Notre Dame a lot of credit. They knew our game to a tee, our personnel and plays and just executed better than us."

If you look back at my article about Notre Dame’s defense, you will see that what their defense does to elite perimeter players is not an anomaly, it’s truly a constant theme.  They seem to focus a game plan on taking out their opponent’s perimeter strengths and exploiting it to their advantage.

Everyone has heard about Tennessee’s super freshman, Meighan Simmons.  How can you not, she’s one of the top freshman in the country, SEC Freshman of Year and also the leading scorer on Tennessee.  Let’s take a look at her past three performances against top competition leading up to her game against Notre Dame.  Against Kentucky in the SEC championship game, Simmons had 16 points on 5-of-10 (50%) shooting and was 2-of-3 (67%) from the three point line.  In Tennessee’s second round game against Marquette, she had 18 points, was 7-of-10 (70%) from the field and 2-of-4 (50%) from the three point line.   And against Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen, she had 18 points; 7-of-13 (54%) from the field and 2-of-4 (50%) from the three point line.

Now I digress - back to the Notre Dame game - Tennessee clearly had the size advantage, the depth and the track record as they were 20-0 against Notre Dame all time.  But what they didn’t have was a defense that had the habit of making elite perimeter players look very average at best.  It was obvious from the outset that Simmons was out of her comfort zone in this game.  She was constantly harassed, picked up early foul trouble and was clearly mentally frustrated and exasperated in this game.  To say that Notre Dame did a great job on her is clearly an understatement as they caused Simmons to have her worst game as a Lady Volunteer.  She had only 2 points on 1-of-11 (9%) shooting and was 0-of-5 (0%) from the three point line.

"I thought she was a freshman and coming into the game I thought we had a little bit of an advantage over her with Skylar guarding her," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.  "I thought she'd probably take a lot of shots and we got her in early foul trouble. We just contained her. I was worried about her getting loose and getting some lay-ups and threes and I thought Skylar did a wonderful job on her."

"Obviously, Meighan was not herself today," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.  "Just looking at her stat line, 1-of-11 FG and 0-for-5 from the three, you can tell she was very anxious so we had to look to other people to do stuff for us. She is a freshman and sometimes we forget that with a great future ahead of her, but she had four turnovers. This was a big game that seemed a little bit different to her, than playing through the SEC and getting here."

Now onto the Notre Dame game against the defending National Champions, Connecticut.  Just hearing about this matchup, most people would pick Connecticut in a rather easy win.  But as you do some probing, you can see that Notre Dame has more than a puncher’s chance in this matchup and could possibly hit a Ryan Howard-sized homerun that would completely shake up college basketball.

"We’re definitely very familiar with each other, and I think that can make it tougher, just because both teams know what each other likes to do,’’ said UConn forward Maya Moore. "So it’s really going to come down to the little things, and whatever team has prepared the best and has the bigger will to win.’’

What’s very ironic about this match up is that it’s eerily similar to the Baylor vs. Texas A&M matchup of a week ago.  This will be the fourth time this year that Notre Dame and Connecticut have faced each other, Notre Dame has played them close in two matchups this year and because of that, Notre Dame won’t be intimidated as other opponents have been. 

"We've looked at those three games and we've taken the good things that we did out of it," said McGraw.

Now mind you, Connecticut has 3-time Wade Trophy winner for National Player of the Year in Moore.  And many would say that she’s the key to this game if Notre Dame is going to have a "prayer" in beating Connecticut.  But I disagree, because there is not a scheme or defense that can stop probably the strongest-willed female competitor that we’ve ever seen; her will is reminiscent of the great Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.  In the three games this year against Notre Dame, she’s averaged, 22 points and 7 rebounds.  So what is the key for Notre Dame? If they are going to pull off the upset, their press and most importantly, containing Bria Hartley will be paramount.

Let’s first look at the two close matchups between these two teams this year.  The first game, Connecticut only won by 3 points, Moore had 31 points and 8 rebounds. So why the close game? Hartley had only 7 points.  In the Big East Championship in which Connecticut won by 9, Moore had 22 points, but Hartley just had 12 points.  Now let’s take a good look at the one blowout that happened between these teams.  The game on February 19th, where Connecticut destroyed Notre Dame, 78-57.  So when you see that score, you figured that "Maya was Maya" and probably had one of her usual imperious performances.  But in actuality, Moore only had 12 points, but Hartley had 29 points. 

So can Notre Dame duplicate the success that they’ve had in stopping the likes of Courtney Vandersloot and Danielle Robinson against Bria Hartley?  I don’t know if they can, but they have to in order to do what hasn’t been done in two years - stopping Connecticut from cutting down the nets at the Final Four as champions.