For the second time this season, Notre Dame will host a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game as the top-ranked team in the country: Louisville visits Purcell Pavilion on Thursday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
Did Notre Dame learn from its 89-71 loss to then-No. 2 UConn on Dec. 2? Will last season’s two losses to Louisville successfully serve as fuel for the Irish?
“If it gives them motivation, I’m all for it,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of her players. “This is an important game with the conference, and if they come in with a chip on their shoulder, I’m fine with that.”
In the regular season last year, the Cardinals thumped the Irish in Louisville 100-67 on Jan. 11.
“That night was so magical; I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again,” Louisville guard Arica Carter said. “We just have to be prepared and focused. I hope nobody on our team is expecting for the game to go like that again. It’s going to be a tough game, a grind-out game.”
That was the case in their second meeting last season, a tight battle in the ACC tournament final on March 4 that the Cardinals won 74-72.
The teams could have met again in the national championship game, but Louisville fell to Mississippi State in overtime in the national semifinals, while Notre Dame beat UConn in overtime.
Then Notre Dame won its second NCAA title. So while that 33-point loss to Louisville might have been last season’s low point, the Irish ended up the last team standing.
“If we can get beat by 30 and end up having a chance to win a national championship like Notre Dame did, I’ll take that,” joked Louisville coach Jeff Walz. “It’s one game; you can’t get too high or too low.
“Our ultimate goal is to be able to win a national championship in April and finish being ranked No. 1.”
That said, Walz is aware of how much a victory over the Irish could mean to an NCAA tournament seeding, saying, “It’s a huge RPI game.” Also, if Louisville could beat Notre Dame and then defeat Georgia Tech on Sunday, the Cardinals would move to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in school history.
This will be Louisville’s first appearance in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game. It’s the first 1-2 game in women’s basketball that does not involve UConn since Baylor beat Stanford in the national semifinals in 2012. And it’s the first 1-2 game between teams in the same conference since Duke versus North Carolina in 2007.
At that time, the Irish and the Cardinals were still in the Big East with the Huskies, and the Blue Devils and Tar Heels were the best of the ACC. Now the power base of the ACC is no longer anywhere near the actual Atlantic coast; it changed dramatically when Notre Dame entered the league in the 2013-14 season. The Irish proceeded to win four consecutive ACC titles. Louisville, which came into the ACC in 2014-15, won the title last season.
Both Notre Dame and Louisville still play nonconference games with former Big East boss UConn; the Cardinals host the Huskies on Jan. 31. However, the Notre Dame-Louisville rivalry has added spice not just because they’re still in the same league, but also because of their relative proximity — the schools are about a 4½-hour drive apart — and that they’re not very fond of one another.
That became particularly evident last season, when Walz used the postgame handshake after the ACC final to chirp at McGraw. He was upset that she had not used Louisville guard Asia Durr’s name when she suggested her own player, Arike Ogunbowale, should have won ACC player of the year honors instead of “the other player.”
It seems to be water under the bridge now; neither coach mentioned it in their pregame remarks Wednesday. But seniors Ogunbowale (22.1 points per game) and Durr (20.9 PPG) are 1-2 in scoring in the ACC this season, and it’s likely not a forgotten issue between the programs.
One can expect some jeers for Walz from the Notre Dame crowd — not that he or the Cardinals mind.
“These games are what players live for,” Carter said. “It’s so much fun to go to somebody else’s place while they’re booing at you and the crowd is screaming at you.”
“It’s great to know you’re going to an environment where you know it’s going to be a sold-out crowd,” he said. “We have to go up there and do our job and play well.”
The Irish have a 14-6 series lead, and they’ve been tough at home against everyone for a long time. The last team other than UConn to win at Notre Dame was Baylor in December 2012.
The Irish are known for their offense, and it has been very good for the most part this season. McGraw loves how they share the ball. Unlike some past Irish teams, Notre Dame doesn’t rely as much on the 3-pointer this season. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Irish get just 13 percent of their points from long range, third fewest in Division I.
But with post players such as Jessica Shepard (15.4 PPG) and Brianna Turner (12.9 PPG), and guards who can penetrate like Ogunbowale and Jackie Young (15.3 PPG), it’s understandable why Notre Dame doesn’t need to rely on 3-pointers.
Louisville is a strong offensive team too, with Durr, Sam Fuehring (10.7 PPG), Dana Evans (10.6 PPG) and Carter (10.1 PPG) all averaging in double figures.
The Cardinals know this game primarily will be a test for their defense and rebounding.
“They’re a great rebounding team, and we haven’t been doing so good rebounding this year,” Carter said. “We have to find a way to come out and rebound. We have to make them volume shooters and make everything for them hard.”