Sunday April 3rd, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- They've lost at home, on the road, and at neutral sites. They've lost by blowout, the tightest of margins, and games in between. There is only losing for Notre Dame when it comes to UConn. The current streak is at 12 consecutive games, and if you wanted to be cruel, you'd write that Notre Dame (30-7) last beat UConn (36-1) 2,254 days ago.

The Irish have lost 28 of the 32 games in the series and now face the ignominious prospect of losing for a fourth time in the same season. They last beat the Huskies on Jan. 30, 2005, about seven months before Charlie Weis coached his first football game in South Bend. "They've had success over everyone, pretty much since Maya Moore has been at UConn," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "She makes it easy for everybody on her team because they can relax a little bit with her there. Connecticut has been pretty much dominant against every school over the past few years."

Moore's dominance over the college game was rewarded Saturday morning when she became the first player in women's college basketball history to win the Wade Trophy for the third time. Later in the afternoon, she added The Associated Press Player of the Year Award for the second time in three years. But it will be more than Moore who poses problems for Notre Dame Sunday night (9:30 p.m. ESPN) in the national semifinals at Conseco Fieldhouse. Freshman center Stefanie Dolson was the difference in UConn's 73-64 win over Notre Dame in the Big East final last month. Dolson played all 40 minutes and matched her career high with 24 points.

What must change for Notre Dame to reverse recent history? "We need to play a full 40 minutes," said Notre Dame senior guard Brittany Mallory. "If you look back at those three games this season and even in the past, we haven't really completed a game where we've played hard the whole time. We're ready to play the full 40 minutes."

There is precedent here and Notre Dame does not have to travel outside of Indianapolis to find it. Texas A&M lost three times to Big 12 rival Baylor during the season before beating them in the NCAA regional final in Dallas. "You use those last couple losses as fuel," said Texas A&M junior guard Sydney Carter. "You use them as learning expenses and not dwell on past losses you had against that team. But I think it also helps that you have something so big on the line. Notre Dame and Connecticut playing for a spot in the national championship game. I think that puts a little sense of urgency into each team."

It's been an odd season for UConn, from the transfer of freshman Samarie Walker to its reliance on a freshman point guard (Bria Hartley) and center (Dolson). Walker's departure, along with UConn coach Geno Auriemma's refusal to play junior center Heather Buck outside of garbage time, has forced the Huskies into a six-person rotation. That's not ideal long-term, according to Auriemma, but the long-term has been reduced to a pair of games. "The advantages are, I think offensively you can get into a flow that maybe you can't get into if you're playing eight, nine players," he said. "I think players get a chance to play through some mistakes, some stretches of the game where things aren't going their way. You might have a tendency to take them out, and they may end up never getting a feel for the game. So there is some benefit to it. I wouldn't want to be in that situation, though. I mean, I'm not thrilled about going out there with six players that I know I can count on. But at the same time you can't worry about it, and it is what it is."

Luckily for him, one of his rotation members is Moore, who averaged 21.7 points against Notre Dame this season, including a 31-point performance in UConn's 79-76 win in South Bend on Jan. 8. It was the most points scored against UConn in more than two years. ("We stole that game," said UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph. "They outplayed us.") Moore now ranks seventh among NCAA Division I scorers with 3,000 points and needs 19 points to pass Cheryl Miller (USC) for fifth place. She is 26 points away from Chamique Holdsclaw (Tennessee) for fourth place.

Mallory said that the key to slowing Moore down -- she admits you can't stop her -- is to limit her touches and disguise your defense. "Keep a hand in her face, be physical sometimes, or fake like you will be," Mallory said. You have to kind of got to be a nuisance to her and that's what I try to do."

Notre Dame spreads the ball around the floor and shoots well from the perimeter so UConn's defense -- they lead the nation in scoring defense at 49.5 points --must be up to the job. Auriemma called Notre Dame shooting guard Natalie Novosel (17.3 points in the NCAA tournament) "the most impactful player" in the Big East this season other than Moore. She pairs up in the backcourt with sophomore Skylar Diggins, an All-America point guard and the Most Outstanding Player of the Dayton Regional after scoring a season-high 24 points in a win over Tennessee. Senior Becca Bruszewski is an undersized center at 6-foot-1 but gritty and inspirational given how often she plays through pain. (The South Bend Tribune recently headlined an article: THERE'S NO ONE TOUGHER THAN BECCA BRUSZEWSKI.) The X-factor for the Irish is the 6-foot-2 junior forward Devereaux Peters, a bundle of energy and nervy play in the post. Peters finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds in the January game but scored just four points in 23 minutes in the Big East title because of foul trouble.

The rivalry between the teams has enjoyed added buzz this month with the release of Bird at the Buzzer, a book by former Hartford Courant sports writer Jeff Goldberg that examines the Big East Championship played on March 6, 2001. The author posits the game was the finest in the history of the sport, featuring five future Olympians and eight first-round WNBA selections. It ended on a 12-foot, last-second pull-up jumper from UConn's Sue Bird. In a stunning reversal, Notre Dame crushed UConn 90-75 at the Final Four less than a month later -- the Irish came back down 16 points in the first half -- and went on to win its first and only title. It was the only year Diana Taurasi failed to win a title at UConn. Moore is now looking to match that feat, but Peters said she's in for a fight.

"We've already proven it's going to be a good game, and it's not going to be easy for them," Peters said. "I think everybody is focusing on the fact that we've lost three times. There's really no pressure on us. I think it's on them to win the fourth time."

The Pick: UConn

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