They decked nine consecutive opponents, including talented teams such as Georgetown, St. John’s and Rutgers.
Saturday, No. 2 Connecticut smacked Notre Dame, 78-57, and now the Irish face the task of responding against three opponents in the next six days. Two of the games in the stretch are against ranked opponents on the road - No. 21 West Virginia on Tuesday and DePaul on Feb. 28. The Irish also play Cincinnati on Saturday.
“This will be the toughest stretch of games for us, and we have a lot to improve on before we get to West Virginia on Tuesday,” said coach Muffet McGraw, whose team is 22-5 overall and 11-2 in the Big East. “When you look at the standings, it is a jumble, and it’s disappointing that we are probably out of contention for the tie for first place. We need to figure out how to beat Cincinnati, West Virginia and DePaul.”
Notre Dame figured things out well enough after its first loss to Connecticut, showing rapid improvement to rise through the rankings from No. 18 to its current spot at No. 8. In fact, since Dec. 1, Notre Dame’s only losses have been to Baylor and Connecticut (twice), the two teams that have owned the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
Connecticut’s Maya Moore knows that the Irish will be a dangerous crew come tournament time.
“Notre Dame has some scoring threats on that team,” Moore said. “They rebound the ball better than most of the teams we’ve played this year. Any time you play a team that rebounds, they always have a good chance of being dangerous, because that’s more possessions.”
Moore credited Notre Dame with aggressive play in the first half, and setting the tempo.
“The first half, we didn’t attack them,” Moore said. “We let them set the tone. That was unacceptable. We all went into halftime furious with ourselves, knowing that’s not going to work. We did do a few things right, but setting the tone wasn’t one of those things that we controlled. That’s what we had to do.”
Irish clinch double-bye
Even though Notre Dame fell to UConn on Saturday, it wasn’t a lost weekend for the Irish.
DePaul’s 82-57 victory over Georgetown on Sunday locked up a double-bye for Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament (March 4-8). Notre Dame wouldn’t play until Sunday, March 6.
The Irish have a three-game lead over Georgetown, Rutgers, Louisville and Marquette with three games left, and the Irish own the tie-breaker over each of those teams thanks to victories against them in the regular season.
“It’s a huge advantage for us, with our bench being a little thin,” McGraw said of earning the double-bye. “Our starters are playing a lot of minutes. To win four games in a row in the Big East Tournament probably has never been done before. The first game is always rough for the team with the bye. Last year, I thought we were sharper, but it’s good for getting some rest.”
Nailing the Huskies
UConn coach Geno Auriemma thought the Irish were a little too sharp on Saturday against his club.
“You can see our players had scratches all over them,” Auriemma said. “Somebody should tell the Notre Dame kids to clip their fingernails. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What the (heck) is that?”
Knowing the Irish
Moore said that the Huskies were better prepared to defend the Irish than they were in the win last month at Notre Dame.
“I think we’re just more comfortable knowing how they run their offense and knowing and anticipating what they’re going to do and where they’re going to cut,” Moore said.
“They do a great job of moving without the ball. It’s a mind-set on defense that you have to anticipate, be aware and communicate. I thought we did a pretty good job of that, and knowing what their players like to do, and trying to take that away.”
In the running
Notre Dame sophomore Skylar Diggins is one of 11 players who are semifinalists for the 2011 Nancy Lieberman Award, given to the nation's top point guard. Diggins is in the running for the award with eight seniors and two juniors.
Diggins averages 14.1 points for the Irish, second on the team. She leads the Irish with 4.6 assists and also averages 4.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals. She is 11th in the Big East in scoring and fifth in assists.
Diggins was the Big East player of the week last week.
* Diggins scored 17 points in the first half of Saturday’s game, the most by a Connecticut opponent this season, and more points than five of Connecticut’s opponents had as a team at halftime, including No. 3 Duke, which only scored 15 points in its first half on Jan. 31.
* Notre Dame’s 57 points on Saturday was a season-low for the Irish.
* Connecticut is just the second Notre Dame opponent to shoot better than 50 percent from the field this season. The other team to top 50 percent was New Hampshire (.514) in the season opener on Nov. 12.Staff writer Curt Rallo: email@example.com 574-235-6152