Final Four Preview: Connecticut-Notre Dame
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It doesn’t matter how long you've been out of college, you never forget your alma mater. With the Women’s Final Four tipping off April 1, many WNBA players will have a clear rooting interest as the colleges they once so proudly represented battle it out for a National Championship. The usual suspects collide in Denver as all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four, and we tracked down prominent former players from the remaining schools -- Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford -- and talked to them about their school’s outlook. We talked with Sophia Young from Baylor, Renee Montgomery from UConn, Ruth Riley from Notre Dame and Candice Wiggins from Stanford, all of whom reached the Final Four at some point in their illustrious college careers, and all of whom, besides Candice Wiggins, took home a title. Here is what you need to know about the Women's Final Four from the players that were once there.
Connecticut vs. Notre Dame
Sunday’s matchup between these two teams will be the fourth meeting between these bitter conference rivals this season. Notre Dame took the first two regular season matchups, but UConn bested Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament, 63-54, to take the title and bragging rights heading into the NCAA Tournament. These two teams are very familiar with each other and the difference between them is paper thin. Find out what UConn alum Renee Montgomery and Notre Dame alum Ruth Riley think about the highly anticipated game.
| Renee Montgomery |
Renee Montgomery was a four-year standout for UConn. As a junior in 2008, she was named to the State Farm All-American team. As a senior, she won the Nancy Lieberman Award, given to the nation's top point guard, on her way to leading Connecticut to a National Championship. She now plays for the Connecticut Sun.
| Ruth Riley |
Ruth Riley graduated as one of the most decorated players in Notre Dame history. In her senior campaign in 2001, she led the Irish to a National Championship, was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and was also named Naismith Women's College Player of the Year. She recently signed with the Chicago Sky.
Q: Why will your school win the game?
A: Montgomery: Because of mental toughness. It goes a long way. Also because I have faith that the UConn coaching staff will make the adjustments needed to win the game.
A: Riley: What matters the most is playing well on a high level both offensively and defensively, and I think they are peaking in the tournament. I think if they are able to put the previous games aside that that will work in their favor.
Q: What scares you most about your school's opponent?
A: Montgomery: Their confidence. It’s hard to beat a team that is confident in themselves and their abilities to beat you.
A: Riley: They’re a very good team. Coach Auriemma and his players have a lot of experience. He knows how to win and I think he is going to have his team prepared in the best possible way. Notre Dame just lost to them in the Big East Tournament, so I’m sure they have momentum.
Q: What is it like playing a team four times in a season – on the pro and/or college level?
A: Montgomery: It’s very hard to execute because you have played the team so many times that they know your offense and you know theirs, so you have to rely on being disciplined.
A: Riley: It’s unique in college. In the pros you become more accustomed to it. It’s especially unique in the NCAA Tournament because you play a lot of teams you’ve never seen before so those games are different. You are kind of learning as you go along. These teams are very familiar with each other and are very accustomed to the changes they make.
Q: It’s hard for UConn to exceed expectations like it did this year, but talk about how this team overcame the loss of so much talent from last year, to bring it all together at the right time?
A: Montgomery: UConn exceeding expectations is almost impossible. The UConn fan base is amazing and they expect UConn to win every year. For the players on the team to be in a situation where they know they have to step up, freshman included, and do a lot more than they did in the past can be intimidating, but the players handled it very well, and now they are in the Final Four because of that.
Q: Talk about how the team had to refocus after losing to UConn in the Big East Tournament?
A: Riley: Notre Dame is going to be focused in that aspect. They have been playing really well in the tournament and it’s going to be a reality check going against UConn.
Q: How much do you expect losing to Notre Dame in the Final Four last year, and twice this season, to be used as motivation in this game?
A: Montgomery: I think the motivation will already be there because a lot of the players on the team should want to prove themselves. Then, to beat a team that has knocked you out the tournament before is also icing on the cake.
Q: How much, do you think, is losing to UConn in the Big East Championship used as motivation for this team?
A: Riley: It’s not so much payback. I think they will be very focused. Any time the stakes are high in a Final Four game, but if you just lost to that team then then the stakes are even higher. Now, in the Final Four, I think they’re well aware that they have to do something different to beat this team.
Q: How do you expect UConn to plan to stop, or at least contain, Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, and what do you expect her impact on the game to be?
A: Montgomery: I think UConn is going to have to play good man-to-man defense, and in particular good one-on-one defense, but they definitely need to have added attention to first Natalie Novosel and Diggins as well.
A: Riley: Notre Dame’s offense is not just Skylar. So many people can contribute offensively. She is heart and soul of this team when she has the ball in her hands and is making plays, but Notre Dame has so many weapons offensively that you can’t just take away Skylar and win the game. I think that’s a key to their success.
Q: Deveraux Peters has been very active on the boards in the NCAA Tournament and against UConn this season. How do you expect UConn to try to keep her off the glass and how important is winning that rebounding battle?
A: Montgomery: Rebounding is all effort. Coach Auriemma is going to pretty much tell the players if you want to win you have to be willing to box out and go get the ball.
A: Riley: She is definitely going to be the key in the post. Staying out of foul trouble is going to have be her first focus. We need her on the floor. She has done a great job as of late. If she can pull down some offensive rebounds it will be a big help.
Q: How much, in your estimation, has UConn’s Tiffany Hayes meant to UConn as its senior leader both on and off the court?
A: Montgomery: I think it’s huge to have a senior like Tiffany Hayes that has been there before and won before. She has seen what it takes and the others will trust that she will lead them in the right direction.
A: Riley: She’s a great player. Any time you’re a senior you’re going to bring experience and leadership and try to make sure you're doing the best to get her team prepared. I think she does that very well.
Q: You have both played for the legendary coaches that will be on the sidelines this weekend. What message do you think your school's coach will give to their team before the game?
A: Montgomery: That this is pretty much all of their first Final Four. I say this meaning, all of the past years, there has been a go-to player that the others could feed off of. This year is the first year where they will have to handle all the pressure on their own.
A: Riley: I think at this point she has her team so prepared for what they’re going to face. She’s going to have her team prepared in order for them to be successful. I think that’s where her strengths lie as a coach.
Q: If your school moves on, what do you think will be the most important factor to them winning the National Championship?
A: Montgomery: Everyone doing their part. This current UConn team doesn't have an All-American per say. So, for them to be successful, every single player has to do what they are good at and do it well for UConn to win a National Championship.
A: Riley: Notre Dame has played really well defensively getting stops and then being able to run and score in transition. But, you need to have a balanced attack as well and they’ve had different players step up throughout the tournament. That many weapons will help against teams like Baylor and Stanford.