There isn’t much the Notre Dame women’s basketball program hasn’t accomplished over the past couple decades, yet it still can’t shake the “underdog” label when it faces Connecticut.
Whether it’s an early matchup in December or a game for all the marbles — like when the two squads meet in Tuesday’s NCAA finals — the Irish aren’t expected to win.
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It doesn’t matter that Notre Dame has gotten the best of the Huskies in recent history, winning seven of the past 11 games in the series. Connecticut is the favorite, and Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw is just fine with that.
“I love being the underdog,” McGraw said. “Always have. I think it’s a great position to be in. The pressure is not on us; it’s on UConn. We can go out, relax, play our game. Nobody expects us to win. Nobody’s picked us to win. So we can really have a very loose attitude going into the game in terms of being relaxed.”
All-American guard Jewell Loyd agreed.
“I think we play our best game when we’re loose and we’re smiling and just having fun,” Loyd said. “That’s how you play when you’re at the parks with your friends, you’re smiling, enjoying the game, enjoying the moment.”
Playing the underdog is not a position McGraw’s teams have been in very often. The Irish are a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, won a national title in 2001 and have advanced to seven Final Fours, including each of the last five years.
Notre Dame has advanced to the NCAA championship game for the fourth time in the past five seasons, and is playing in a title game for the fifth time in program history — something only three other schools have accomplished (Tennessee 13, Connecticut 10, Louisiana Tech 6).
But when you’re facing Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut juggernaut — winner of nine NCAA titles, including the last two — you’re bound to be the underdog. And the perennial favorite Auriemma said that’s not such a bad thing.
“We all aspire to be in that situation at some point in our lives where you’re going to capture the imagination of a lot of people,” Auriemma said. “It’s that whole Rocky Balboa thing in Philadelphia … It’s part of the lure of sports. When you’re the underdog, you think all things are possible.”
In Notre Dame’s past three title-game opportunities, claiming the national championship trophy has eluded them. McGraw said that while she doesn’t feel pressure from going winless in her last three tries, she wants a victory for this year’s team more than anything.
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“I think getting here is a great achievement for any program,” McGraw said. “I think that there’s probably 350 schools in the country that would love to trade places with us. So I think being here has been just a great achievement for all of us. I think probably because we did win one that maybe I don’t feel that sort of pressure. But I want this for this team. I want to win for this team so they can have that feeling of looking up in the rafters and seeing another banner.”
UConn knocked off Notre Dame in last year’s championship game, and the year before in the semifinals. In 2012, Baylor ended Notre Dame’s run.
“Being here three times and not winning anything at the end of it is just draining,” junior captain Michaela Mabrey said. “I think this would mean everything to us. The sting of last year’s game is what I remember. All that work we put in and didn’t come out with anything. That feeling we got last year is the motivation behind everything. It would be an unbelievable feeling. Coming this far with nobody expecting us to be here and saying that we were a year away or too young to win, I think it would just mean everything because we’ve put so much hard work into this season.”
And the players, well, they will give their all for their coach — underdog or not and no matter they’re playing.
“Making it to the national championship motivates us to win one for this program, to win one for Coach McGraw,” sophomore guard Lindsey Allen said. “She has done so much for this program and we are all really motivated to have made it this far.”