Underdog Notre Dame has chance to be remembered

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — Four consecutive Final Four tries to win a women’s basketball national championship.

Four straight disappointments — for a variety of reasons.

Why should No. 5 be different for Notre Dame?

Tonight’s challenge against big, bad, bully Connecticut is right in Muffet McGraw’s wheelhouse.

She came to this Gulf Coast city playing the “Let’s just enjoy the experience” card. It was a “We’re young, we’ve overachieved, and we’re thrilled to be here” approach.

Anyone who knows Muffet can sense a smoke screen.

She’s done an amazing job selling to her team that it’s playing with house money. Everything, once they touched down in Florida, is gravy.

Wait till tipoff, though. She’ll be as fiery and intense as ever. Just being there won’t be enough.

McGraw relishes the opportunity to be the underdog.

“It's a great position to be in,” McGraw said. “The pressure is not on us; it's on UConn. We can go out, relax, play our game. Nobody expects us to win; nobody's picked us to win.”

At least for one night, she’s the loosest coach in America, to steal Irish men’s coach Mike Brey’s moniker.

Then there’s Geno — as in Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. He’s been manning that WNBA feeder system for so long that knocking someone down and stealing their lunch money is just a way of life.

“We all aspire to be in that (underdog) situation at some point in our lives, where you're going to capture the imagination of a lot of people,” said the colorful UConn coach. “It's that whole Rocky Balboa thing in Philadelphia (hometown for both him and McGraw). The city has a statue of a guy who made a movie, a fake boxer, in front of one of the great art museums in the world. You know what I mean? It's a crazy city.

“It’s part of the allure of sports, that feeling…”

Auriemma may be a master of the psychology of sport. Uhhhh … Well, he does talk a good game.

“When you're the underdog, all your game plans are about ‘This is what we're going to do; we're going to do this, we're going to do this, and then we're going to do this, and we're going to beat their (butt)’. And everybody gets all fired up. And you go out and you play.

“When you're in our situation, I get up every day and I go, ‘Damn, if they do this, this and this, we're going to lose.’ So it's a flipped way of thinking, because when you're the underdog, you think all things are possible. All you have to do is play the perfect game and all things are possible.

“I miss being in that situation. But hopefully, history holds true. The underdogs don't have a really good record against the top dogs.”

The Irish, over the last four years, are well aware of that record.

In an attempt to punctuate his point, Auriemma made a quick pivot with the media, from basketball to watching the ponies run.

“Any horse racing fans in here?” Auriemma shot out to a startled group. “Anybody know who Steve Cauthen is? Who did he ride? He rode Affirmed (to the 1978 Triple Crown). Anybody know who the jockey for Alydar (the runner-up in all three races) was? Hard to remember. I have no idea because he didn't win any of those three races.

“That's why people become famous, because they ride the best horses and they coach the best players.”

For the record, it was Jorge Velasquez.

Now’s Notre Dame’s chance to finally be remembered.

Notre Dame players celebrate as they exit the court following the 66-65 victory over South Carolina the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball game on Sunday, April 5, 2015, inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN