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Irish women set for monster Final Four matchup with UConn

COLUMBUS, Ohio - There are two scenarios Notre Dame women's basketball heading into the Final Four: Friday could be the end of the season, or the Irish could punch their ticket to the national championship game.

To get there, the Irish will have to get through the UConn Huskies, as seems the case every year in what has become the marquee matchup in the sport.

"It’s still definitely a rivalry," said head coach Muffet McGraw. "I think it’s one of the best in women’s college basketball.”

The emotions and pressure certainly have the makings of a rivlary, but it has been one-sided in the last few seasons. The latest meeting saw the Irish take a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, but ultimately the Huskies stormed back to win once again.

Four months later, the Irish have a chance to finally get back over the hump.

"Just to have an oportunity to play in that rivalry game again, it means a lot," said Jessica Shepard. "I think we learned a lot from that first outing. We watched a lot of film and just learned from it."

While both of these teams expect to be on this stage every season, it will be a new experience for this Irish group.

With a small senior class, the Irish have been led by a younger core than most Final Four teams, meaning they'll be taking this experience into next season.

“It’s kind of nice to have juniors and sophomores looking at this as just a great opportunity to kind of play their game.”

After missing the last two Final Fours, those sophomores and juniors are getting their first chance to add to Notre Dame women's basketball history, which is why so many of them chose to come to South Bend.

“They’ve been to Final Fours five straight years before me and we had a couple let downs the past couple years," said Arike Ogunbowale, who earned another All-America honor on Thursday. "I think this is why I came here and this is really what I wanted to do, so I’m excited to be here.”

But while the Irish are taking in the sights and sounds, they know the ultimate prize that's out there, and they don't want to wait until next year to grab it.

“I want to win a national championship," said junior Marina Mabrey. "I’m happy to be here but I’m definitely not satisfied, so we just have to stay focused on the task at hand. Not focused on anybody but UConn.”

Few teams have had as much success as Notre Dame has against UConn. The Irish are 3-1 against the Huskies in national semifinal meetings, including one on the road to the 2001 National Championship.

They'll try to add another tally in the win column against the top-ranked and undefeated Huskies Friday at 9:30 at Nationwide Arena.

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