Notre Dame and Connecticut have revenge on their minds in tonight’s Big East semifinals

It is always nice when there is a little revenge factor to spice up a conference tournament!

Tonight in Hartford the Big East will have their semifinals and both games have the extra motivation of an earlier meeting that had a surprising ending. On February 12, West Virginia went into Purcell Pavilion and knocked off Notre Dame 65-63. Six days later, St. John’s visited Gampel Pavilion and defeated Connecticut 57-56 to end the Huskies’ 99 game home winning streak.

At 6 p.m. ET, Notre Dame will get their chance at the Mountaineers, and they are anxious for it.

“Definitely we’ll come out with a chip on our shoulder,” said Big East player of the year Skylar Diggins. “I think we play better with a chip on our shoulder. And it’s good to have a second chance because they beat us at home and it gives us another opportunity to advance into the championship.”

Senior Devereaux Peters echoed Diggins’ sentiments, and clearly has taken the loss personally.

“They had a bunch of lay ups, (Ayana) Dunning and (Aysa) Bussie were getting a lot of points on me, and I was fouling a lot. They were scoring a lot of points in the post and we weren’t doing our job, so that definitely has to change for tomorrow.”

If yesterday’s quarterfinals showed anything, it is that the Irish are tuning up nicely, while the Mountaineers are struggling to get their engine in gear. Notre Dame handled DePaul 69-54 and had four of the five starters in double figures. Seniors Peters and Natalie Novosel each had 16 points to lead the Irish. Peters dominated the boards with twelve rebounds, seven offensive, and set solid picks that freed up the shooters in Notre Dame’s motion offense. Defensively, they were just as impressive, passing DePaul star guard Anna Martin between Novosel, Diggins and especially Brittany Mallory with great success.

“That was the key to the game,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw. “We obviously had to find her all the time. We didn’t really switch the match ups as much as it happened in transition. I think we did a really good job of finding her, and if Brittany wasn’t the first one there, somebody else found her.”

West Virginia, on the other hand, was out of sorts offensively all game, shooting only 25 percent for the game and scoring 39 points in defeating Georgetown. Defensively though, they held Georgetown to only 14.7 percent shooting and 32 points. Despite the offensive issues, coach Mike Carey was thrilled with the way his team continued to defend.

“You just try to survive, and we just tried to survive that game,” he said. “We struggled all night. With that being said, I want to give our girls credit. We didn’t get shook up. We continued to play defense. We didn’t let our offense affect our defense, so that was key.”

Tonight that offense will have to execute though, at least as well as it did the first time. Against Notre Dame, West Virginia played probably their best game of the season. All-conference post Asya Bussie had 22 points that day, including 10 of 13 from the foul line. The Mountaineers as a team made 21 of 25 foul shots; against Georgetown they made 9 of 24, with Bussie hitting just five of eleven. She also held Peters to one for eight shooting that day, and Peters is on a roll.

It will be very difficult for West Virginia to defeat Notre Dame twice; it may even be difficult for them to keep the game close.

If everyone knew then what they know now, St. John’s victory at Storrs, Connecticut might not have been considered such a big upset. Then again, to go into Gampel’s friendly confines and knock off the Huskies is quite a feat. The Big Three for the Red Storm, Da’Shena Stevens, Nadirah McKenith, and Shennika Smith combined for 41 of the team’s 57 points that night, including of course Smith’s game winning three-pointer as time expired.

The Red Storm enter tonight’s semifinal the higher seed, number two, to Connecticut’s number three. It took overtime for St. John’s to defeat tough Louisville in a game where the referees impacted the flow probably more than either team. In the end, Smith and McKenith came up big once again; Smith with 24 points including a pair of threes, and McKenith netting fifteen and contributing four assists. The question remains, however, what will be the impact of playing an overtime game be tonight. Coach Kim Barnes Arico opened her press conference with a comment on how tired everyone was.

“I’m exhausted. I feel like I just played an overtime game. I’m sure the players are tired as well. I thought it was a great basketball game.”

She later elaborated on that answer, but stopped short of making it an early excuse.

“I think one of the biggest things we really haven’t talked about is that we are down a starter (sophomore forward Mary Nwachukwu),” said Barnes Arico. “She hasn’t been back, and we still have been able to pull it out and grind these games out without her. But it definitely has taken a toll, and we’ve had to go a lot smaller and it’s affected our rebounding, obviously, as you can see tonight. But at this point in the year, it’s survive and advance, and these kids got to dig down and be ready to play. They’ve got to go back and get ice baths and drink Gatorade. I think a lot of it is mental. They’re young. You know, they’re in the best shape of their lives. So mentally they’ve got to say to themselves they’re ready to go and they’ve got to bring it tomorrow.”

Connecticut will be on the court less than 24 hours from one of their uglier victories in recent memory, as they were held under 50 points by Rutgers, and shot only 32.7 percent from the floor in their 49-34 victory. Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said that most of that was due to playing Rutgers as an opponent.

“We talked all day long that that’s the way Rutgers games are,” he said. “They all have the same patterns. It does not matter who you have on your team or who they have on their team. All of the games take on a similar characteristic. It is difficult to get things flowing in a positive way and get open shots. I know we missed a lot of open shots tonight so our defense had to win the game for us.”

He was very pleased with his team’s defensive effort and intensity.

“I thought our defense was great for forty minutes and that we guarded them the way that we wanted to. I tip my hat off to our team. It takes a lot of effort to concentrate that hard on defense. Overall it was a pretty gutty performance by our team.”

The Huskies will have to score more efficiently and more often to be able to defeat St. John’s, despite the fact they will basically have home court advantage. Big East freshman of the year Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis showed why she won the award, hitting five of six three pointers and six of ten overall for a game high 17 points. She and Stefanie Dolson (10 points) were the only two Huskies to score in double figures.

“I just tried to help my team out as best I could because we were in a bit of a slump,” said the freshman, “many of my teammates were setting screens for me so when I got an open shot I just tried to knock it in.”

Auriemma joked postgame, that it was easier to play St. John’s prior to their success, but still made it very clear that he and the Huskies relish their second chance at the Red Storm.

“St. John’s had a chance to lose their game tonight and they showed a lot of confidence. They have a look about them that scares me. They know they are a good team and I liked it better when they did not know that. I sense from watching them that they are going to find an answer and somebody will step up for them. It is remarkable what they have done over there but I am glad that we are playing them again. We want another shot at them.”

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s games, there is no doubt that all four Big East semifinalists are thrilled to be in the position they are, as they try to win the conference tournament and advance to the NCAA tourney on a high note.

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