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April 3, 2013

Notre Dame aims for 4th win vs. Connecticut

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw hopes she was wrong two years ago.

The Fighting Irish had lost to Connecticut three straight times that season by an average of 11 points and were preparing to play the Huskies again in the NCAA semifinal game when McGraw said: “The fourth time’s a charm.”

“I think it’s going to be a mental hurdle to get over. It’s difficult, I hope, to beat a team four times,” she said back then.

How difficult? Neither Muffet McGraw nor Geno Auriemma, both Hall of Fame coaches with 59 years of years of experience between them, have ever beaten an opponent four times in a season. Both UConn and Baylor had the chance to accomplish the feat two years ago in the national semifinals. Both failed. The Huskies lost to Notre Dame and the Bears lost to Texas A&M.

That’s the obstacle in front of the Fighting Irish (35-1) Sunday in New Orleans when they will face the Huskies (33-4) in an NCAA semifinal.

Notre Dame has beaten UConn three times this season by an average of three points — although the largest margin of victory, a six-point victory in South Bend on March 2, came in triple overtime.

“It’s tough to beat a team three times. It’s tough to beat a good team two times. And the battles we’ve had this year have gone back and forth and down to the wire, every one of them,” McGraw said Wednesday. “We’ve really done some great things at the end of the game. We’ve made some huge plays.”

In the first game, at Storrs, UConn’s Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed a wide-open 3 at the finish as the Irish held on for a 73-72 win. In South Bend, Jewell Loyd stole the ball from Caroline Doty with 15 seconds left to force the overtime. In the Big East title game, Natalie Achonwa’s uncontested layup with 1.8 seconds left after a steal by Skylar Diggins gave the Irish the 61-59 victory.

Auriemma said beating a team four times is difficult, but doesn’t think it’s “undoable.”

“If you can do it three times, you can do it four times,” he said.

He believes one team dominating another team as the Irish have the Huskies the past two seasons, winning four straight and seven of the past eight games and both of the last two national semifinal games, gives the Irish a psychological edge. Auriemma pointed out the Huskies had beaten Notre Dame 12 straight before that.

“I’m not sure all of that was physical. I’m sure we had a decided mental advantage. When you know that you can beat someone, it certainly does give you maybe more confidence and it certainly does give the other team more cause for concern,” he said.

Auriemma said the Huskies can take some comfort that every game has come down to the last possession in regulation.

“It would be a different scenario if we had played poorly and lost a lot and felt like they’re too good and we don’t have it right now,” Auriemma said. “But the fact that every game has come down to the last minute means there’s a couple of things we didn’t do well.”

It’s a sixth straight Final Four appearance for the Huskies, who last won a title in 2010. It’s the third straight for Notre Dame, who lost in the championship game the past two years and won its only championship in 2001.

The Irish have said they don’t feel any added pressure this season after coming up short the past two seasons. Other teams have experienced worse frustrations. Stanford made the Final Four five straight seasons before this season. Guard Jeanette Pohlen, who played on four of those teams, losing in the semifinals twice and the national championship twice and is now a guard with the Indiana Fever, said she never felt any added pressure as an upper classman because of the previous disappointments.

“I didn’t feel as much pressure because I was just very confident in my team,” she said. “My senior year I was pretty surprised we lost to Texas A&M in the semis. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to get to the Final Four. It is hard to lose, though, because you’re so close something so great, so big. It’s just kind of crazy when you get that far and lose.”

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