Noie: Notre Dame not intimidated by big, bad UConn, but is that enough?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Steering her sports car into a space reserved for the boss in the back parking lot of Purcell Pavilion earlier this week, the Hall of Fame basketball coach gave her horn a quick honk after spotting a friendly face.

Barely four hours had passed since a cross-country, overnight flight carrying the Notre Dame women’s basketball team had landed back in Indiana, but Muffet McGraw already was back at work, with her ride residing in athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s spot.

Running on fumes and focus, McGraw had enough time to get to her Granger home and get some rest, then get back to the office and back to work. Another Final Four, the eighth in program history and first since 2015, beckoned. Notre Dame (33-3) and Connecticut (36-0) meet Friday (9:30 p.m., ESPN2) in one national semifinal at Nationwide Arena.

“After two years of missing out, it’s great to be back,” said McGraw, who picked up Associated Press national coach of the year honors Thursday evening.

But back against that team, the one that rarely loses. The one that makes history at almost every turn.

Walking toward the back door of her home arena late Tuesday morning, McGraw spotted former Irish men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps, who knows something about overcoming outrageous odds and beating a top-ranked team that has a long win streak that seemingly cannot be snapped.

Phelps offered McGraw a quick scout on the Huskies. Connecticut can be beaten, he insisted, and Notre Dame is just the team to do it. Just Digger being Digger? Absolutely, but he did it seven times. History’s on his side. Although he soon may have to share it.

Beating big, bad Connecticut for this Notre Dame team, given everything it’s had to overcome, would rank among the biggest victories in school history regardless of sport. The Irish women would stand alongside Phelps and the Irish men with their victory over top-ranked UCLA in 1974.

Maybe even alone at the front of the line.

UCLA had won 88 straight when Phelps worked his Irish magic. Interest then was word of mouth. No internet. No cable. No social media. No pressure.

The Huskies have handled all the challenges and just keep winning.

Connecticut has won 193 of its last 195 games, including 111 in row at one point. When it loses, it’s big news. Above-the-fold worthy. It rocks a sport whose postseason just doesn’t subscribe to Cinderellas. Where the best teams too often win and win easily.

So it’s Connecticut’s turn. Connecticut’s time.

Still, what an upset Friday would be. Or would it?

Not in a Notre Dame locker room battered by injury, but buoyed by resiliency. There have been many times this season — even this month — that the Irish have been down and seemingly out. And then …

Trail Tennessee at home by 23 points? Just roar back and win. Down by 13 to Texas A&M in the second quarter of a Sweet 16 game? Win. Down nine to Oregon in the second quarter of an Elite Eight game? Business taken care of.

The Huskies are just another hurdle. Dynasty or not, it’s one the Irish believe they can clear.

“I’m not sure we would consider it an upset,” said sophomore Jackie Young. “We’re two of the best teams in the nation. This will be fun.”

Fun in that the one element that often stands in Connecticut’s corner may not against Notre Dame. Just the sight of the Huskies warming up throws teams into turmoil. Sure did at the tournament’s start when UConn hung 55 points on Saint Francis (Pa.) — in the first quarter. It had 94 at half, 140 when it finally ended.

Just your average 88-point win for a Connecticut team whose average margin of victory is 37.1. With the Huskies, perception sometimes runs away from reality.

Not for Notre Dame.

“Half the problem when you play UConn is the intimidation factor,” said Irish junior forward Jessica Shepard. “We don’t have that.”

When the teams met in early December, Notre Dame led by 10 points in the closing minute of the third quarter. Connecticut then flipped a switch, decided to be Connecticut and walked away with an 80-71 victory.

The Irish still are salty over that Storrs stumble.

“We,” said junior guard Marina Mabrey, “definitely gave that one away.”

Gift-wrapped it to a team that many believe won’t ever offer a return present. They’re too good. Too driven. Too focused not to take this season at least a step further than last year when it slipped to Mississippi State in the national semifinal. All the Huskies did to get to their 19th Final Four was score 94 points to beat South Carolina, last year’s national champion, by 29 this week in the Albany Regional final.

With a starting lineup that features four All-Americans and matchup migraines at every position, this UConn team’s on a mission that no other might match.

The Irish may not have to play the perfect game to win Friday, but if the Huskies are close to it, forget it. Notre Dame may have no business being on the same floor as Connecticut. But it also had no business beating Tennessee or Texas A&M or Oregon. No business losing only one Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season game. No business winning 18 of its last 19 with only seven available scholarship players and riding a rotation that sometimes stops at six.

Connecticut has won seven in a row in the series after Notre Dame won four straight and seven of eight. It’s time for this series script to flip. Time for Notre Dame to turn this sport on its head.

The Irish have stared at the big, bad wolf of women’s basketball six times in NCAA tournament play. Each team has won three. If this were a seven-game series, Connecticut might breeze easily. Maybe even with a sweep. But it’s not. It’s one game. Only four quarters and 40 minutes.

All the Irish need is one night for it to be theirs. To make shots. To get stops. Maybe it’s Friday. Maybe.

“We have nothing to lose; all the pressure’s on them,” Mabrey said. “This is our time to win.”

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Notre Dame players practice during the NCAA Women’s Final Four media day events Thursday, March 29, 2018 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA