Noie: Second chance in national semifinal awaits Notre Dame women

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla.

Doused so definitively earlier in the day, a fire was required when the door to the Notre Dame women’s locker room closed that early December evening.

It’s not that Notre Dame lost by 18 points to rival Connecticut that lingers. Or that the Irish looked so unlike themselves, unable to shoot the ball or share the ball or do anything positive with the ball in a game they never led. It’s the way the players gathered after such a complete letdown/meltdown, and then nobody knew what to say.

There was only silence.

On a big stage for the first time since capturing the school’s second national championship six months earlier, the Irish stumbled and bumbled and tumbled off the riser. It all happened at Purcell Pavilion, which stung even more.

Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw entered the locker room and did a slow simmer as she tried to figure out who those players were in those white uniforms. That wasn’t her team. Not the one that had beaten eventual Big Ten tournament champion Iowa by 34 points in the previous game. They looked nothing like the defending national champions.

Long way to go? At that point, it felt like the Irish had no idea where they were going, or if they’d ever get there.

With silence smothering the room, sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn remembers wanting to reach into her locker and grab her coat. Or a sweatshirt. A pullover. Something that was going to help get her warm.

“We were all just really upset; Coach was really upset,” Vaughn recalled Thursday. “It felt like the room was freezing. That was a really difficult locker room to be in. We were so disappointed in ourselves.

“I don’t want to be in that locker room again.”

Certainly not Friday, when No. 1 seed Notre Dame (34-3) and No. 2 Connecticut (35-2) meet again in a national semifinal (approximately 9:30 p.m., ESPN2) at Amalie Arena. Dive as deep as Notre Dame does in college basketball seasons, and second chances often surface. It can’t do anything about its two Atlantic Coast Conference losses to Miami (Fla.) and North Carolina. Those teams are long into the offseason. That will have to wait. This one doesn’t.

Notre Dame has a chance to clear that Connecticut chill, and do it in a familiar setting. National semifinal showdowns between these powerhouses have become a spring staple. The days grow longer, the snow disappears and Connecticut and Notre Dame rekindle its rivalry on a Final Four Friday.

This is the second time in as many seasons and sixth overall that these teams meet at this tournament crossroads. One goes home; one goes to play for a title. Notre Dame is 4-1. Friday’s winner returns for Sunday’s championship against the winner of No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 Oregon.

“It’s better going into a game against someone you lost to,” McGraw said. “It’s hard to beat a team a couple times, especially a good team.”

A good team like the defending national champions. A team that’s reeled off 13 straight wins since it lost in early February. A team that remembers what happened the last time these teams met.

Connecticut 89, Notre Dame 71. It wasn’t that close as the Huskies sucked all the life out of Purcell Pavilion. And out of the Irish, who had no choice but to own it moving forward. As individuals. As a group.

“We’re a much better team now,” said junior guard Jackie Young. “Overall, we’ve been more focused in doing the small things and being more disciplined.”

That means being more connected. On offense sharing the ball. On defense finding it. In playing the type of basketball that championship teams play in March. In April.

No cellphones chirped that December evening in Purcell Pavilion, but that first Connecticut game was a wake-up call for the Irish. Last year was last year. Notre Dame couldn’t live off it, couldn’t rely on it. The Irish had to find their way out from under it, then find their way.

“We needed to refocus,” said senior forward Jessica Shepard, “and figure out what the identity of the team would be.”

That loss highlighted some Irish issues, but that was good. Notre Dame ran off 12 straight wins after that Connecticut game, but it still wasn’t there. Not after that league loss at North Carolina. Or the other at Miami. Well, maybe a little closer after that one.

The Irish have since been solid. They barreled through the rest of the regular season and to another ACC tournament championship. They barely broke a sweat in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame was tested in myriad of ways last weekend in Chicago. It led; it trailed. It didn’t play its best at times. When needed, it did.

Notre Dame’s in the Final Four for the ninth time. A year ago, up in the gray and gloom of Columbus, Ohio, the Irish carried themselves as just happy to be part of the ultimate women’s college basketball party.

This year in summer-like Florida, they’re a headlining act.

It’s different. Just like after that first game against Connecticut, so is Notre Dame.

Notre Dame practices for the NCAA Final Four on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Tampa, Fla.
Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale talks to reporters during locker room media access for the NCAA Final Four on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

* Preview of Notre Dame's national semifinal game against longtime rival UConn | B1

* Irish coach Muffet McGraw sounds off about women's equality | B1