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Notre Dame-UConn: The Mental Edge

Two years ago at this time, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw was embracing the law of averages that maybe tilted to her side.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw has an amazing 3-0 record against Connecticut in the Final Four with victories in 2001, 2011 and 2012.

“It’s difficult — I hope — to beat a team four times,” McGraw said prior to facing head coach Geno Auriemma’s juggernaut Connecticut Huskies in the 2011 Final Four at Indianapolis.

That year, Notre Dame had been 0-3 against UConn, losing 79-76 at home, 78-57 in Storrs and 73-64 in the Big East Tournament. However, it then upset the Huskies in the Final Four, 72-63.

The Fighting Irish would lose in the championship game to Texas A&M — a team that ironically had gone 0-3 that year against Baylor before vanquishing Brittney Griner and Co., in the NCAA Tournament.

A definition of the law of averages is that all things being relatively equal, a set of results in a given event “even out.” If you flip a coin 10 times, it’s extremely unlikely it will be heads all 10 times or tails all 10 times. There is a greater expectation that the more you flip the coin, the more even it will be between heads or tails along the way.

Two years later, the roles are reversed for McGraw and Auriemma in this weekend’s Final Four at New Orleans. This time it is Notre Dame that owns the 3-0 mark against UConn. Each time UConn had the Irish on the ropes in the closing seconds, and each time it failed to close, losing 73-72 in Storrs on Jan. 5, in triple-overtime at Notre Dame on March 4 when the epic shootout seemed sealed several times for the Huskies, and then falling 61-59 in the Big East Championship when they turned the ball over in the closing seconds with the game tied, leading to a Natalie Achonwa game-winning layup off the fast break with 1.8 seconds remaining.

So who has the mental edge? Is it Connecticut because it’s “due” to win one of these close encounters? Or is it Notre Dame because it has the Huskies spooked and doubting themselves?

“It’s tough to beat a team three times — it’s tough to beat a good team two times,” McGraw acknowledged when asked about the difficulty of going 4-0 in one season against Connecticut. “The battles that we’ve had this year have gone back and forth and down to the wire, every one of them. We’ve really done some great things at the end of the game to win the game. … We would certainly hope that the karma continues.”

Said Auriemma of Notre Dame’s potential to pull off the 4-0 sweep this year: “I think it’s difficult. I don’t think it’s undoable. Obviously it’s difficult when you’re talking about two teams that have played games that were decided in the last seconds. But if you can do it three times, you can do it four times.”

It’s easy to forget that until that 2011 Final Four upset by the Irish, Connecticut owned a 28-4 advantage in the series against Notre Dame. Yes, UConn had more pure physical talent most of the time, but it also had the mental edge from the perspective that the Irish, deep in the crevices of their soul, probably didn’t think they could beat UConn, whereas the Huskies sensed they would find a way.

To quote the great warrior Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “Every battle is won before it is fought.” Connecticut had that mental edge with 99 percent of its opponents, not just Notre Dame.

Auriemma doesn’t deny that the Irish might now be in UConn’s head. Notre Dame senior point guard Skylar Diggins has led a dramatic change in the series. After UConn was 12-0 versus Notre Dame from March 2005 until that defeat in March 2011, Notre Dame is 7-1 versus the Huskies in the last eight contests. Moreover, Connecticut either led the game or was tied with the Irish in regulation in five of those defeats.

“I believe in that theory to a certain extent,” said Auriemma of one team gaining a mental edge on another. “I know we have beaten them 12 times in a row — and I’m not sure all of that was physical. I think some of that was we had a decided mental advantage when you know you can beat someone.”

When Notre Dame football was 12-0-1 versus archrival USC from 1983-95 (including 11-0 from 1983-93), the Irish mental edge was maybe even more vital than any physical advantages.

When asked what finally helped Notre Dame change the tide in the 2011 Final Four, McGraw said it was a matter of playing with anger and executing with poise and confidence. Diggins led that charge then, just as she is now.

“I think we probably just got tired of losing,” McGraw said. “That was probably the biggest thing. When you have a chip on your shoulder … I think we still have a chip on our shoulder even though we’ve won them all [this year].”

Is it Connecticut’s turn to get the anger boiling over? Maybe, but it will still come down to execution.

“We know what they’re going to do; they know what we’re going to do,” said McGraw of the all-too-familiar Big East foe. “Both of us have put a couple of new wrinkles in, but really it’s going to come down to another battle, every possession.

“We go into the games with a lot of confidence and we know it’s going to be a battle, but I don’t think there’s an edge really either way.”

When all is said and done, Sunday night’s Final Four in New Orleans starts with the score 0-0 and another blank slate.

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