No. 1 UConn challenges Notre Dame's record
By KERRY SMITH
Asssistant Sports Editor
Even though Irish head coach Muffet McGraw has professed all season that she and her team take one game at a time, this weekend has been at the back of their minds since November.
And no one could have scripted a better matchup than when the No. 5 Irish travel to face the No. 1 Connecticut Huskies Saturday to decide the regular season Big East conference champion.
After each Irish win at the Joyce Center, opposing coaches have sat at press conferences, shaking their heads at the talent in the Big East, comparing their loss to Notre Dame with their loss to Connecticut and other Big East powerhouses.
After Georgetown's loss to Notre Dame in January, Hoya head coach Pat Knapp couldn't believe the talent on the Irish squad.
"I'm not one to come in to town and boost up the other team," said Knapp, after the Hoyas' 87-56 loss. "But if you're asking if Notre Dame can beat B.C., Rutgers, Connecticut, the answer is yes."
Knapp is 2-0 in his picks so far. The Irish went on to secure wins against the Eagles and the Scarlet Knights, and Irish fans hope his final prediction rings true as well.
"They have this thing with Connecticut where they don't win," said Knapp. "But from what I've seen, they have the talent."
That "thing" Knapp was referring to is Notre Dame's failure to produce a single win against the Huskies. The Huskies have delivered 10 losses to the Irish and have yet to come up short on points when the final buzzer sounds.
The Irish lost only three games at the Joyce Center since their induction into the Big East and all three of those losses have been to the Huskies.
With history and ranking in UConn's corner and momentum swinging the way of the Irish — in a 20-game winning streak — the hype about Saturday's game has been building for months.
But when the two teams step on the court at the Hartford Civic Center, hype won't matter.
At 24-2, the Irish arrive in Hartford backed by the nation's longest winning streak and an undefeated home and conference record this season.
With a win over Connecticut, Notre Dame would cap one of the most successful seasons in the program's history on a high note.
"It's a little different [coming in as the underdog]," said senior guard Danielle Green. "They're the No. 1 team, but they're not any different than Rutgers or Purdue or Illinois. We just need to win."
But the Huskies are hungry for another chance to take down the Irish.
With only one loss this season, the 25-1 Huskies have repeatedly shown their seemingly unmatched basketball prowess, downing opponents by as many as 72 points.
With a tight press, the Huskies have been able to force their competition into too many turnovers, something the Irish have struggled with during the season.
"We're working hard to handle their press," said Green. "We are going to need to be able to break the press."
The Huskies strength comes in their depth. The Irish starters match up well with the Huskies' starting five, but UConn's bench is more tested than Notre Dame's.
Huskie forwards Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova headline an impressive UConn roster.
Ralph leads her squad in scoring, averaging 14.6 points per game. Abrosimova nips at her heels, averaging 13.9 points per outing.
Hitting the 100-point mark six times this season, the Huskies like to score early and often.
The Irish also like to capitalize on the fast break, making Saturday's contest likely to be a fast-paced, back-and-forth game.
Irish center Ruth Riley directs the Irish inside game. Averaging more than 16 points a game, Riley has been Notre Dame's go-to player all season. The 6-foot-4 junior has led the Irish in their last two outings, racking up 62 points.
With Riley on the inside, the trio of Green, Niele Ivey and freshman Alicia Ratay dominate the arc. Ratay shot a conference record 7-for-7 from 3-point land against Rutgers last weekend.
"We're excited for the game," said Green. "We've been practicing all week and we're ready."
Saturday's matchup is a preview of the Big East tournament next weekend, which will also be held in Connecticut.
All Sports Stories for Friday, February 25, 2000