For Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma, the outcome of Sunday’s semifinal game (6:30 p.m. ESPN, WTIC, WHUS) against Big East rival Notre Dame in the 2012 NCAA Final Four in Denver will not depend on any new strategy or surprising developments between teams that will be squaring off against each other for the third time in the past month and the eighth time within the past year.
“It may be just as simple as if a couple of their guys play really, really well, and a couple of ours don’t, they’re going to win,” Auriemma said earlier this week during a national teleconference. “If a couple of their guys struggle and a couple of our guys play well, we’re going to win. It will not come down to somebody had a strategy going in that was so unique and so different that in those eight games in the last 12 months, no one has seen it, and no one knew. I just don’t know that you can hide that much from each other. We’ve seen each other way too much.”
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw agreed: “I think at this point in the season, no matter who you’re playing, it’s going to come down to the players on the floor making shots and making plays. I’m not sure, having played them three times this year, that there is going to be a whole lot of new things that we can take away from that. So I think that we’ll just really focus on ourselves and continue to try to get a little bit better at some of the little things we’re working on.”
The Huskies are the only team among the Final Four to have played each of the other teams this season. After losing twice during the regular season to Notre Dame, UConn won the Big East Tournament three weeks ago. The Huskies handed Stanford its only loss of the year in November at the XL Center, and lost in December at Baylor 66-61 after leading by 11 points early in the second half. Baylor is the only unbeaten team in Denver.
If there is a theme to the 2012 NCAA Women’s Final Four, it is unfinished business from last year for everyone. Baylor lost to the eventual 2011 champion, Texas A&M, in the regional final. Stanford lost to Texas A&M in the semifinal. Notre Dame beat UConn in the semifinal and then lost the championship to Texas A&M.
“I think all the teams have a little bit of a hunger,” Auriemma said. “There is no defending national champion that’s in the field. So I think the same thing is going through everyone’s mind at this point.”
Four of Notre Dame’s starting five average double digit scoring, led by All-American guard Skylar Diggins with 16.7 point per game and guard Natalie Novosel with 15.3. Forward Deveraux Peters averages 11.8 points and 9.4 rebounds, and guard Kayla McBride averages 11.7 points. The Irish also get bench help in scoring and rebounding from forward Natalie Achonwa and guard Brittany Mallory.
“They’ve got experience. They’ve got ball handlers. They’ve got shooters. They rebound the hell out of the ball. They’ve got slashers to the basket,” Auriemma said. “They’re one of the best coached teams I’ve seen in the last 10 years. One of the best offensive teams, one of the best passing teams I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s very, very difficult to find the weakness in this particular Notre Dame team.”
McGraw said she recognizes that the Huskies’ team play during the year also has been the strength of Auriemma’s young team, which over the past month has taken shared responsibility to win games.
“I think when we played UConn, we’ve had a lot of different games with them,” McGraw said. “Stefanie Dolson ’14 (CLAS) has really beat us. Bria Hartley ’14 (CLAS) beat us. I think different people have stepped up in different games and played really well. When you’re playing a team like Connecticut, they’ve had such an equal opportunity team that any one person can step up on a given night and play extremely well. So we don’t generally game plan to stop one person. It’s just kind of looking at the whole team.”
However, she did note that senior Tiffany Hayes ’12 (CLAS), the Most Outstanding Player in the Kingston regional tournament last weekend, is one player that must be taken into account.
“Tiffany Hayes figures into the game plan all the time, because she has such great athletic ability,” she said. “She can get to the rim. She’s a great three‑point shooter, and I thought defensively she played really well in the last game we played. I think she has that ability to get up and guard people.”
GENO JUST BEING GENO: One reporter asked all Final Four coaches the same question: What they thought their team does better than anyone else in the country. Auriemma answered by talking about the Huskies’ nation-leading defensive statistics, but only after starting with this: “What do we do? Well, other than win the Big East Championship and win the Eastern Regional, we do good dance videos. We’ve been really good at those. We’ve done a couple this year and they’ve gotten rave reviews,” he said in reference to the Huskies’ “Call Me Maybe” video that has appeared on YouTube in recent weeks.