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Notre Dame-Connecticut Preview
Natalie Achonwa drives against UConn's Maya Moore earlier this season (AP)
 
Natalie Achonwa drives against UConn's Maya Moore earlier this season (AP)

April 3, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Geno Auriemma has accomplished virtually everything imaginable in his storied career at Connecticut.

He's won seven national championships and the program's 90-game winning streak is one of the all-time records in sports. Yet the Hall of Fame coach has never had to beat the same team four times in one season.

That challenge awaits his Huskies on Sunday, when they face Notre Dame in the Final Four in their quest for a third straight title.

The two BIG EAST teams know each other inside and out having played three times already this season - all UConn victories. Auriemma shrugs off all the familiarity.

"From the coaching stand point there's not much we can do at this point," Auriemma said. "It's like taking horses to the Kentucky Derby. The gate opens, they start running, and let's see who wins."

UConn star Maya Moore acknowledged how well the two teams know each other.

"We're definitely very familiar with each other," she said of the Fighting Irish. "That can make it tougher because both teams know what each likes to do. We'll try and take it away from each other. It may come down to the little things and whichever team prepares the best."

The little things might not be enough to help Notre Dame overcome Moore, who needs just 26 points to move into fourth on the all-time scoring list past Chamique Holdsclaw and Cheryl Miller. She's also 39 points short of Holdsclaw's record in the NCAA tournament.

"I think she's the very best," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Moore. "I don't think there's anybody better. I think that she is an amazing player in every facet of the game."

With two more victories, the Huskies will match the record for consecutive NCAA titles set by Tennessee (1996-98) and UConn (2002-04). The Huskies (36-1) are making their fourth straight trip to the Final Four and have advanced that far in 12 of the past 17 years.

 

 

Notre Dame isn't scared by the Huskies' impressive resume. The Irish hung tight with Connecticut in two of their meetings this season, including a three-point home loss in January, but they've lost 12 straight games to UConn since the last victory on Jan. 30, 2005.

They know they'll need to play well for an entire game to pull off the win.

"A full 40 minutes of focus," Notre Dame forward Becca Bruszewski said. "A lot of times, they go on runs, and we get a little antsy, a little excited. It's staying focused the full 40 minutes."

Notre Dame (30-7) shot just 35 percent in its three losses to UConn, well below its season average of 48 percent.

"I felt we got the same shots that we get for the most part. But we didn't make nearly as many, because I think we were rushing a little bit," McGraw said. "Somebody's coming over, you're wondering where Moore is, is she going to block it? So I think we have to stay loose."

McGraw needs only to look across the bracket for inspiration. Texas A&M, which plays Stanford in the other semifinal, beat Baylor in the regional final after falling to the Lady Bears three times this season.

"We jokingly say the fourth time's a charm because Texas A&M did it. But I don't really think that's going to come into play for us in the locker room before the game," McGraw said. "We'll talk about the task at hand and what we have to do."

While her players lack Final Four experience, McGraw does not.

Her Irish team won the national title in 2001 after knocking off UConn in the semifinals, Notre Dame's last trip to the championship. The two teams split two games earlier that season.

Notre Dame already has erased one losing streak by topping Tennessee in the regional final after dropping 20 straight to the Lady Vols.

While a lot has been made of Connecticut having both the men's and women's basketball teams playing in the Final Four, Notre Dame is having its own run of success with the men's hockey team competing in the Frozen Four next week. The Irish fencing team also won the national championship last weekend.

"It's been crazy. It's just a great time for Notre Dame sports right now," Irish forward Devereaux Peters said. "I have some fencers in my class. A lot of people are cool with the hockey players. We really follow each other and support each other. We're one big family, really."

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