ND's McGraw looks past polls, focuses on progress in showdown with UConn

Ken Klimek
Tribune Coorespondent

SOUTH BEND — Who's No. 1?

Who cares?

This time of year, more than a ranking, it's about sizing up your team against one of the top programs in the country.

That's what Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma have in mind when the top two teams in the country meet Wednesday night.

The Huskies come to South Bend two days after leapfrogging the Irish and landing in the top spot of the Associated Press poll.

“I really don’t care about the rankings," McGraw said. "A lot of this game is to see where we are. We haven’t played a great game — 40 minutes — yet. All the pressure is on them. They have the (82-game winning) streak.”

The Huskies' run of consecutive wins is the second-longest in NCAA women's basketball history. topped only by a streak of 90 straight, also concocted by UConn (2008-10).

A sell-out crowd of more than 9,000 will be at the 7 p.m., clash at Purcell Pavilion, and a likely large audience will be watching the telecast on ESPN2 in what has annually become one of the most highly anticipated women’s collegiate matchups.

Notre Dame is 8-0. Connecticut is 7-0.

“I love this game,'' said McGraw. "It is a great game. It is so competitive. It’s big for everyone in the country.''

Both teams love to run. Both teams are loaded with offensive weapons. Defense will matter most.

“There are some things we haven’t put in yet — things we would like to be working on,” said McGraw. “I have to keep reminding myself it’s only December. March and the NCAA tourney is still a long way off.

“This game will be more about: Can we execute what we have? Can we play defense? Can we rebound? It’s all about the little things.''

Included in the seven Connecticut victories this season are wins over powerful teams like Baylor (No. 3), Florida State (No. 7) and Texas (No. 17).

''It's really hard to pinpoint or put a label on this team,'' Auriemma said after his Huskies took down Texas, 72-54, on Sunday. ''They just seem to do what they need to do. That's what it appears to me right now.

"We don't appear to be a team that imposes their will on the other team like we've been doing the last couple years. What do we have to do today? We figure it out and just do it.''

They have to figure it out without reigning three-time National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, who has moved on to the WNBA following graduation.

“They have a lot of balance — probably more balance than they have ever had," McGraw said. "You have to look at guarding all five of them.”

Four of the Huskies average in double figures. Katie Samuelson, a sharp-shooting, 6-foot-3 sophomore, leads the way with a 19.1 scoring average. Six-1 sophomore Napheesa Collier is at 19.0, Kia Nurse, a 6-0 junior, is at 13.9, and Gabby Williams, a 5-11 junior, is at 10.3

The Irish counter with plenty of prolific scorers. Sophomore Arike Ogunbowale leads the way at 17.5, with classmate Marina Mabrey at 13.8. Brianna Turner averages 13.5 and freshman Jackie Young is at 10.2 per game.

Turner did play against Connecticut in the NCAA championship game two years ago, but missed the regular-season matchups each of the past two seasons with a shoulder injury.

Kristina Nelson was pressed into action last year with Turner sidelined.

“I wasn’t that confident at all last year,'' Nelson said. "But Bri got hurt, and I had to step in. I’m a lot more confident this year. I can use that experience from last year and carry it over to this game.”

Auriemma said earlier this week that he enjoys the preparation for the showdown.

"Sometimes (it's) more fun than the actual game."

Who will have the last laugh when Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw (right) and Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma meet again Wednesday night in a 1-vs.-2 showdown at Purcell Pavilion? (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)