Connecticut head women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma might have the only players that have experience winning a national championship in this year’s NCAA Women’s Final Four, but the wealth of experience that sits on the Fighting Irish bench will come in handy as they prepare for another bout with the Huskies.
Along with head coach Muffet McGraw, assistant coaches Carol Owens and Niele Ivey were both contributors in a title run. Owens served as an assistant at Notre Dame from 1995-2005 and then returned again this season after leading the helm at Northern Illinois for several years. Ivey was an All-America point guard for the Fighting Irish on the 2001 ring-bearing squad that defeated Connecticut 90-75. She notched 21 points in the victory, denying the defending champions a return trip to the title game.
“I think one of the things that brought me back to Notre Dame is Muffet McGraw,” Owens said. “She’s a huge mentor for me and my coaching career and we stayed in touch throughout. Although it was a hard decision, I think she did her best recruiting job that she’s ever done getting me back. It’s just hard to say no to Notre Dame and what she was looking for.”
With Owens’ return came improved post play from Devereaux Peters and Becca Bruszewski, along with important contributions from freshman Natalie Achonwa. And it’s evident the two go hand-in-hand.
“It was absolutely awesome. [Coach Owens] was there when we won the first national championship and she has that type of experience,” said Bruszewski. “She is able to show us and tell us things that maybe we are doing wrong whether it’s a half of step or half of a second. She’s crucial to our game plan.”
LAST UCONN-NOTRE DAME MATCHUP: Connecticut and Notre Dame last met in the Big East championship game, where Maya Moore aided the Huskies with 22 points to finish with a 73-64 victory. Freshman Stefanie Dolson was a strong asset in this outing, playing all 40 minutes and matching a career high 24 points.
NOTRE DAME’S LAST WIN AGAINST UCONN: The last win for the Fighting Irish against Connecticut dates back to Jan. 30, 2005, when they defeated the Huskies 65-59. Connecticut leads the series 28-4.
NOTRE DAME’S LAST TRIP TO THE FINAL FOUR: The two teams are playing each other in the Final Four for the second time. Notre Dame won the first contest 90-75 in the 2001 national semifinals. It wasn’t an easy win for the Fighting Irish. They pulled off the biggest comeback in the 20 years of the NCAA Women’s Final Four after being down 16 points in the first half.
Owens credits the starters’ growth to their own hard work and dedication to making themselves better on the hardwood.
“I was the coach. I was challenging them, but in the end they executed. Devereaux and Becca have been great leaders in the post and helped Natalie Achonwa accomplish what she’s accomplished. I think they’ve done a great job of knowing that they needed to get better every game,” Owens said.
Every now and then, the starting post players need a breather and Notre Dame has been able to rely on Big East All-Freshman Achonwa. This fast learner averages 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds off the bench.
“I’m really lucky because we have such great post play in our starters and I can just sit on the bench and learn from them and learn what’s not working for them, what’s working for them, so when I come in I have an idea of what I need to do to get the job done quickly,” Achonwa said.
As a freshman, it can be amazing and overwhelming at the same time to be such a contributing force to a team that is playing on the biggest stage of women’s basketball in only their first season of play.
“It’s just beyond words to already work so hard this year and in just one year get to where every team is dreaming to be right now is tremendous,” Achonwa said. “We are just grateful that we put in the work and we got the reward.”
Notre Dame considers its experience of playing the Huskies three times already this season as an advantage. They head into the tournament already having played against the best team and the best players in the nation.
“We’ve had a lot of experience in the Big East playing against good post players and we feel like going into the NCAAs there’s nothing that we hadn’t seen,” Owens said. “I think there was some sort of comfort knowing that they’ve had the best competition in their own league going into the NCAA tournament.”
When asked who the hardest team is to prepare for this season, Auriemma simply replied Notre Dame. The fact that the Huskies have faced other national powerhouses this season including Baylor, Duke, North Carolina and Stanford makes the impact of that statement even greater. Is it possible that Notre Dame has flown under the radar? With a little luck on their side, perhaps the Fighting Irish will have a repeat performance of the historic semifinal matchup in 2001.