No. 3 Irish women ready for Big East tournament

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Fresh off their first outright Big East regular-season championship, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her third-ranked Fighting Irish are focusing on winning the conference tournament.

''I think this team is really special,'' McGraw said. ''And they have really high goals. They're a competitive group, they have a lot of pride, and I love that about them.''

The Irish, who have never won a Big East tournament title, won't play until Sunday, earning a bye until the quarterfinals along with St. John's, Connecticut and Georgetown. The conference tournament begins Friday afternoon with Syracuse playing Providence.

Despite beating perennial favorite Connecticut twice already this season, McGraw knows that anything can happen. The Irish's lone blemish in the conference came with a home loss against West Virginia, which is seeded fifth.

''I think this is the most parity I have seen in the Big East,'' McGraw said. ''Connecticut has been so dominant. This is the first time anybody has beaten them in the regular season in a while. It's definitely a time when you look and say, `This is our chance.' If you're 1-through-8, I really think you have a great chance.''

In years past, playing in Hartford was a serious problem for the Irish, who hadn't won there in their first seven tries. Now a little of the mystique of playing on UConn's home floor is gone after Monday's victory.

''I think everybody in the country probably feels like they're in UConn's shadow. They've got a great program. We have complete respect for (UConn coach) Geno (Auriemma) and what he's done here,'' McGraw said. ''It's nice to come in and win here because we have not done it before.''

This was the first time in six seasons that UConn didn't win or share the Big East regular-season title. The Huskies are now looking to keep alive their 18-year streak of winning either the Big East regular-season or tournament championship. Auriemma isn't exactly expecting that streak to continue the way the Huskies have been playing lately.

Auriemma hasn't been thrilled with his team's lack of fight. In Monday's loss to the Irish, the Huskies didn't respond to a game-deciding run by Notre Dame and he pulled his starters with about 3 minutes left and UConn still within striking distance.

''I really don't care about the Big East tournament at this point,'' he said. ''I really don't. I could care less what happens in the Big East tournament. I don't care who wins it. If it's us, great. If it's (Notre Dame), great. I really don't care. We're not good enough to win the Big East tournament, probably. So it doesn't matter to me who wins it.''

Before a potential third matchup with Notre Dame in the finals, the Huskies may have to face St. John's in the semifinals. The Red Storm were one of the surprises of the conference, finishing second after being picked seventh in the preseason.

They have won eight straight games, including ending UConn's 99-game home winning streak on Feb. 18. That victory, which also ended a 27-game losing streak to the Huskies, has given the Red Storm a lot of momentum heading into the weekend.

''We have a great deal of confidence coming in,'' St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico said. ''We're peaking at the right time and are on a little bit of a roll. But now it's one and done, survive and advance. We've got to be focused and performing at the highest level, if we don't we're going home.''

Barnes Arico sees this as potentially one of the most competitive Big East tournaments in recent years. Six of the teams in the conference are ranked, and DePaul and West Virginia aren't far behind.

''Going into the tournament, everyone has to feel they have a great shot,'' Barnes Arico said. ''West Virginia beating Notre Dame at home and our beating Connecticut; those two things hadn't happened in the past. Our league is incredibly strong and we have some really great teams in our league.''

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