By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ There is a bit of a role reversal in this year’s matchup between Big East rivals Connecticut and Notre Dame.
The No. 3 Irish (14-1, 2-0 Big East), perennial underdogs to the No. 2 Huskies (12-1, 2-0), are this season’s coaches’ pick to win the conference.
Despite winning 12 of the last 13 meetings between the two schools, UConn believes it is the team with something to prove after losing to Notre Dame in last season’s national semifinal.
“Of course, it’s still in the back of our mind,” said UConn forward Kelly Faris. “But, if you want to sit there and go into a game thinking, `OK, we’re going to pay you back for last year,’ you’re going to lose. If that’s all you have in your mindset, you’re not thinking about the right things.”
The right things include how to stop a Notre Dame team that returns four starters who played in last year’s national championship game and barely lost to Texas A&M. The Irish are on an 11-game winning streak, and looking to win the program’s first conference regular-season title since 2001, the year they won the NCAA title.
This team is led by Skylar Diggins, the Big East preseason player of the year, who is averaging more than 16 points. Natalie Novosel (15.6), Deveraux Peters (10.5), and Brittany Mallory, also are back from the team that went 31-8.
The Irish average more than 85 points and have scored over 90 seven times, including a 128-42 rout of Mercer on Dec. 30.
Meanwhile, UConn is leading the nation in defense by holding opponents to under 43 points a game.
“We’ve played them, it feels like 1,000 times, so they know us, we know them,” Faris said. “It’s going to come down to effort, heart and who is going to be more aggressive.”
Connecticut may look a bit different to the Irish without Maya Moore, who graduated after scoring 36 points in UConn’s 72-63 loss last April.
The Huskies have spread out the offensive load this season, with three players averaging more than 14 points a game. They often run a four-guard offense.
“It’s kind of an equal opportunity offense and you’ve really got to worry about everybody on the team,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “You can’t just worry about one person.”
Both teams also feature a player who didn’t figure in last year’s Final Four game. Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is leading UConn with 15 points per game, while Notre Dame sophomore Kayla McBride chips in more than 12.
Each team’s loss this season has come on the road to top-ranked Baylor. It’s an experience Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said will help the Huskies prepare to play in South Bend in the game on CBS.
“We might go up there and get our brains beat in, but at least we’re going to know what we’re getting ourselves into,” Auriemma said. “There won’t be any surprises.”
Neither coach is treating the game as a must win. It is January, after all, and the schools will meet again at end of the regular season in Hartford.
“This is the game we look at and say, `How far do we have to go to be ready for March?” McGraw said. “What do we need to improve on? I don’t think you learn as much about your team when you win by 30 or 40 points.”
Notre Dame senior Brittany Mallory is looking forward to the test.
“We’re excited for this weekend, it’s a big rivalry and a great game between us,” she said. “We’ll be ready.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)