Huskies vs. Irish: Final round from St. Louis
By NOAH AMSTADTER
The first time it was an upset predicted only by the most optimistic of Irish fans.
The second time, they played an epic battle deemed an "Instant Classic" by ESPN.
Tonight, the Notre Dame women's basketball team meets Connecticut in the only suitable destination for the two top-ranked teams in the nation — the Final Four in St. Louis.
"I think we are always ready for the challenge of playing Connecticut," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday. "I think it was a great series this year, and certainly, we look forward to one more opportunity to play them."
While the surging Irish are strong as ever, Connecticut excelled in the East regional despite playing without Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph.
Abrosimova suffered a season-ending foot injury in a Connecticut's regular season loss to Tennessee. Ralph tore her ACL in the Huskies' March 6 victory over the Irish in the Big East championship game.
That loss came less than two months after then-No. 3 Notre Dame clobbered an undefeated and top-ranked Connecticut squad 92-76 on Jan. 15. It was the first win for the Irish in 11 tries versus the Huskies.
"I think it could be difficult if we had lost both games," McGraw said. "I think you talk about how hard it is to beat a team three times, but when you beat them 11 times in a row, I don't think that you worry about winning that third game."
Ruth Riley set the tone for the Irish in both games. At home, Riley scored 29 points — including a perfect 13 of 13 from the free-throw line — and grabbed 11 rebounds. Kelley Siemon added 15 points and eight rebounds just two days after suffering a broken hand.
In the rematch at Storrs, Riley had 23 points while Siemon added 16. Sue Bird led the Huskies with 15 points, including a majestic jump-shot at the buzzer.
Connecticut freshman Diana Taurasi earned Most Valuable Player honors at the Big East Tournament and hasn't stopped since. The Los Angeles native led Connecticut with 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the Huskies' 67-48 Elite Eight romp of Louisiana Tech on Monday. McGraw believes Taurasi's Big-East-Tour-nament performance gave the guard the right attitude to succeed in March Madness.
"I think that was sort of a springboard for her," McGraw said. "She has played really well in the NCAAs. And especially with Shea Ralph out of the lineup, she has more of the scoring role, which is a job I think she's comfortable with. Even as a freshman, she is a very, very poised player."
With shooters Ralph and Abrosimova out, Connecticut fields a taller lineup. Asja Jones, Swin Cash and Kelly Schumacher are all rebounding specialists.
"I think that makes them a better rebounding team," McGraw said. "I think they are still a very good defensive team. They seem to be playing more halfcourt defense than fullcourt defense. So I think that they have made some great adjustments."
Should the Irish walk away victors tonight, they will take on either Purdue or Southwest Missouri State for the national championship on Sunday.
The Boilermakers return to the Final Four after winning two years ago. The Bears stormed through the Western regional to earn their first trip to the dance since 1992.
Purdue is led by Katie Douglas, Kelly Komara and Camille Cooper. The Boilermakers topped Xavier 87-78 Monday to advance towards a possible rematch with the Irish, who won the last meeting of the two Indiana teams 72-61 Dec. 9.
"I think it's great," Riley said. "It shows what kind of players come out of Indiana. It shows a lot for Hoosier basketball."
The Bears boast the nation's top scorer, Jackie Stiles. The 5-foot-8 guard put in 32 points before fouling out as SMS topped Washington 104-87 Monday night.
No matter what happens, McGraw is thrilled with her team's effort this season.
"It really has been such a special year for me in a lot of ways," McGraw said. "I think the chemistry of this team has been so tremendous. They have been so much fun to work with. I wish I would have kept a journal or decided to write a book at the beginning of the year"
Two more wins, and she'll have quite a story to tell.
All Sports Stories for Friday, March 30, 2001