SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame continues to do its part, on the road to the Game of the Century. So does Connecticut.
And now it must be getting harder and harder not to jump ahead, even if for only an unguarded second, to what might happen in the sport next Tuesday night. Connecticut could be 39-0. Notre Dame could be 37-0. The women’s game has never seen such a thing in the national championship game. Neither have the men.
Premature speculation, to be sure. Both will have someone else to beat next Sunday in Nashville, and who in the world looks past a Final Four game? Nobody does. Nobody can.As Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd said Monday night after her 30 points led the Irish past Baylor 88-69 in the regional championship, “We’re worried about ourselves. We’re worried about our circle right here. That’s Notre Dame. We’re not worried about anybody else.”
And yet, consider what a rare moment this is for them, and their sport. That a team could be perfect and nearly untouched – the Irish have won 34 of 36 games by double figures, and their average victory margin is 25.7 – and still be in someone else’s shadow. When’s the last time a 36-0 team went to a Final Four as an underdog for the national championship?
Consider the possibilities next week, if this collision course goes uninterrupted. But not yet. Not at Notre Dame, anyway. To all this, the Irish are determined to wear blinders.
“I think that’s something our coaching staff makes sure of, that we’re focused,” senior star Kayla McBride said. “It is hard. There’s a lot of noise out there. Undefeated and undefeated, whatever. But we’re trying to focus on one game at a time. That’s something we’ve talked about at the beginning of the year, before we even got to the ACC tournament or the NCAA tournament."
The Irish might have to play what would be a 34-4 Louisville team next Sunday. Or Maryland, the opponent who has come closest to them this season -- 87-83 in College Park in January. Neither would be easy.
Plus, there is a new dark cloud in the uncertain status of senior forward Natalie Achonwa, whose great game Monday – 19 points and 15 rebounds – ended suddenly with a knee injury. “It sucked the air right out of the room,” coach Muffet McGraw said later. Her loss would be a major blow. The Irish anxiously wait for word from the MRI.
So the clash of the titans is still in the distance, with no guarantees. No real reason yet to mention that Notre Dame has beaten Connecticut seven of their past nine meetings.
“I think it’d mean a lot for the game,” Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said of the potential matchup. “Not only do you have two teams performing at a very high level, but two great rivals who have had a lot of classic matchups in the last five years. But we have an important game in front of us before that.
“It says everything about how Muffet approaches the program, that the intensity this team practices with, you’re not looking ahead a moment. Or you’ll have your butt on the bench.”
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said, “It’d be great for hype promoting the game. It’d be great for ESPN advertising it on TV.”
But she also added, “If you win the championship, nobody cares what your record was. Nobody remembers if you were undefeated.”
Still, what a night for the sport that could be. If it even happens.
“It would definitely be something to talk about,” McBride said.
But like all great postseason opportunities, it comes with a catch. First, you have to get there.