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Notre Dame redshirt junior Devereaux Peters discusses coming back from multiple knee injuries.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Notre Dame forward Devereaux Peters is excited to be on familiar footing as Sunday's national semifinal against Connecticut approaches. But before anyone starts making space on the bulletin board, it's neither the fourth meeting with a rival nor Conseco Fieldhouse's Indiana ZIP code that has the Big East Defensive Player of the Year smiling.
Forget the surroundings. After suffering a torn ACL in her left knee twice in the span of 10 months in 2008 and trekking the long road back to full health, Peters is just happy to once again be familiar with the player inhabiting her own jersey.
"It was a tough time getting back to that point," Peters said. "I think early in the season I was a little frustrated that I wasn't playing the way I thought I could. I thought I was going to automatically be back after the summer. It's different playing in games, so I struggled a little early on.
|Devereaux Peters has fought back from two ACL tears within 10 months in her left knee in 2008.|
"But then it feels good to be finally back and playing the way I'm used to playing."
Familiarity is inescapably at the heart of a game between Big East rivals whose fourth meeting this season (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET Sunday) will settle a place in Tuesday's national championship game. In their three prior games, the Fighting Irish twice pushed the Huskies to the final minutes, including a last-second loss in front of a partisan crowd in South Bend -- a setting that might bear at least a passing resemblance to Sunday's crowd in an arena barely three hours south of the Notre Dame campus.
These two teams know each other as well as any that have ever played in the Final Four, and Texas A&M's locker room a few feet down the hall from both Big East teams is a reminder of how a 1-3 record against a team can sometimes feel infinitely better than the reverse, after the Aggies broke through against Baylor in the Elite Eight to reach Indianapolis.
But substitute the freshman learning curve for the rehabilitation climb and Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson might offer much the same sentiment as Peters when it comes to finding her footing at the college level. And for all these teams know about each other, the understanding or knowledge that matters more to two players who could decide the outcome in the final meeting has little to do with each other.
"Scouting reports and all that stuff, pretty much [go] out the window at this point in the season," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I don't know that there's anything that they're going to do that's going to be significantly different. Maybe a couple of touches here and there that might be different. Same with us. But it's just going to be about making plays. Is Skylar Diggins going to make enough plays? Is Maya Moore going to make enough shots?
"Is Stefanie [Dolson] going to make enough plays in the lane, and is Devereaux Peters going to block enough shots and be an impact?"
It's not surprising that Auriemma picked blocks when he referenced Peters. For one thing, the 6-foot-2 redshirt junior ranked third in the Big East in blocks per game at 1.8. But that particular skill also might stand out in Auriemma's mind because of the four shots Peters blocked when the teams played in South Bend, a game in which the Fighting Irish played the Huskies to a draw by every measure other than the scoreboard. That effort -- 17 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks in 34 minutes -- encapsulated how Peters can alter a game on both ends of the court.
Her reaction after making back-to-back big plays in the closing minutes of last week's regional final against Tennessee summed up how she can change things in far fewer minutes and in far less tangible ways. Notre Dame built its lead in that game with Peters primarily watching from the bench in foul trouble, but it only became clear the game was over after Peters returned and made back-to-back big plays on the offensive end, punctuating each with her head and shoulders thrown back, feet stomping, and mouth open in a scream of exultation and exhilaration. The team feeds off Peters' energy, and that energy comes from the kind of plays she makes when healthy.
"She just gets so excited when she can contribute to the team," junior Natalie Novosel said. "We really appreciate what she does, but she just doesn't realize how much of a motivating factor she is for this team. It just gets us hyped. In the Tennessee game, the moment where she came in and just [had] so much frustration built up and it all came out at one point. She just has such passion for the game and for this team."
|Natalie Achonwa and Notre Dame are 0-3 against Stefanie Dolson and UConn this season.|
Both sides of the equation were difficult to find early in the season. Peters played 25 games last season after the two knee surgeries in 2008 wiped out the end of the 2007-08 season and much of the 2008-09 season, but it wasn't until she had a full offseason to work on basketball, as opposed to rehab, that anyone expected her to reclaim the full array of skills she showed off before the injuries.
Yet as the team headed to Seattle for a New Year's tournament this season, she was averaging a modest 9.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. Not coincidentally, although Notre Dame played well enough early in the season, it lost close calls in its three biggest games: against UCLA, Kentucky and Baylor. In danger of adding another tough loss against Gonzaga in the Seattle tournament, the Fighting Irish got 27 points from Novosel and 19 more from Diggins -- but also 10 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks from Peters, her first double-double of the season, to hold on for a win.
A little more than a week later, she had the big game against Connecticut and the old Peters was back for good.
"I think when conference started is when I really felt like I was back, as far as healthwise and just playing better," Peters said. "It takes awhile, even when you're healthy, even getting back to how you've played previously. And I think that started for me in conference, especially after we came from Seattle. That tournament really sparked me."
Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson says getting in shape and staying confident have been big keys to her rookie season.
At about the same time Peters welcomed the familiar sight of her old self, Dolson was getting comfortable with the college game. The win the Huskies came away with in South Bend wasn't solely, or even mostly, because of her, but she aided the cause. The freshman totaled nine points and eight rebounds in that game and played 27 minutes, the first time she played more than 25 minutes or came that close to a double-double.
In the 22 games that followed, a stretch that concluded with the regional final victory against Duke, she averaged 29 minutes per game and scored in double figures 15 times on her way to becoming the team's second-leading postseason scorer behind Moore.
"I became more comfortable in my role, Dolson said. "The first half of the season, I think I thought I was just going to be on the team. Second half, I think I stepped up and really became that post presence, so I could open up the outside shooters more, which I think has helped a lot."
Talking about when the light goes on for young players such as Dolson, Connecticut associate coach Chris Dailey recalled a moment in a game against Oklahoma when then-sophomores Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones fully grasped a particular defensive concept for perhaps the first time. Dailey's anecdote was instructive, but it was also telling -- those former Connecticut greats had more time and more company to learn than Dolson had. As the lone true post player in the regular rotation for the Huskies, she had a decidedly abbreviated basketball adolescence.
"You had a typical freshman," injured junior Caroline Doty explained of Dolson at the start of preseason. "Someone who didn't really know what to do, someone who was just kind of enjoying the moment, goofing around all the time -- being a normal kid. Just how she grew, she matured, she became such a better basketball player to now, it's been unbelievable. And it all pays off. She does extra workouts on her own to get in shape because she wanted to be able to play 40 minutes at her best. I just commend her hard work and her mentality and her open-mindedness -- she's open to anybody's opinion."
Peters and Dolson will not spend much time matched against each other, not with Notre Dame posts Becca Bruszewski and Natalie Achonwa around to help the cause in the paint for the Fighting Irish. But if the game turns on players making plays, as Auriemma suggested, two post players increasingly familiar with providing such things could deliver the one that makes all the difference.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.