- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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There's nothing like a game between Connecticut and Notre Dame to offer a reminder that timing is everything.
Three losses against Connecticut a season ago were barely footnotes in the history of a Notre Dame campaign that ended oh-so-close to a second national championship after a well-timed semifinal win in the fourth try against those same Huskies.
An all-time series record that stands at 28-5 in favor of Geno Auriemma's team suggests the same kind of one-sided relationship the Huskies have with most Big East foes. A 2-0 lead for the Fighting Irish in Final Four meetings speaks to why this is a rivalry as good as any currently contested.
And as No. 3 Notre Dame prepares to renew acquaintances with No. 2 Connecticut in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, it has all the parts it needs to do last season's success one step better. That's in no small part because after four years of more frustration than fun, Devereaux Peters is still emoting, energizing and thoroughly enjoying the ride.
Her timing, it seems, turned out to be perfect.
Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel provide the points for the Fighting Irish, accounting for more than a third of those scored by the team this season despite playing minutes limited by the leads they build. But there's a reason Peters, fourth in scoring behind those two and sophomore Kayla McBride, joined Diggins and Novosel on the United States entry in the World University Games over the summer and serves as one of three co-captains for the Fighting Irish.
"Dev is that player that every good team has," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Every Top 25 team has a player like her that can just go get a rebound. She is an incredible athlete who is gifted with great skill. She jumps really well, she's got tremendous hands, quick feet. She runs the floor, so she's hard for the other team; she puts pressure on the defense to get back. She can block shots, she can defend on the perimeter."
McGraw is rarely wrong about much, but the Hall of Famer was a touch off the mark in this instance.
Good teams are merely good because they don't have players like Peters. As McGraw knows but isn't going to boast, it's great teams that have players like the one she described, one currently averaging 10.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals in just 19.7 minutes per game and valuable in ways beyond even those numbers.
What sets Saturday apart from an ordinary game, or even a game between teams in the lower regions of the Top 25, is the scarcity of weak links and the surplus of strengths on both sides. Few teams have players like Diggins and Novosel at the top of the rotation, as is equally true of Bria Hartley, Tiffany Hayes and Stefanie Dolson for Connecticut. But the gap grows gargantuan in Notre Dame's ability to bring McBride along at her own pace or Connecticut's ability to bring freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, its leading scorer, off the bench without losing a beat because of the aforementioned trio, the do-everything versatility of Kelly Faris and veteran hands of Caroline Doty.
Or in McGraw's ability to deploy a 6-foot-2 bundle of energy like Peters as a rebounder, defensive stopper and game-changer.
That profile would have been a hole in Notre Dame's championship credentials this season had Peters progressed through college untouched by injury. The Fighting Irish would have watched both her and Becca Bruszewski depart after last season, leaving a small team that much smaller. But Peters didn't complete a full season in any of her first three tries after arriving in 2007. She suffered a torn ACL in her left knee after 23 games as a freshman and then tore it again three games into her comeback the following season, an injury which delayed the start of her third season. It wasn't until the middle of last season, around the start of Big East play, that Peters said she started to feel like herself again multiple surgeries related to the injuries.
Right about that time, in fact, she had 17 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in a January game against Connecticut in which Notre Dame won a lot of respect in losing.
There were a lot of memorable moments during Notre Dame's NCAA tournament run last season, but few edge ahead of Peters catching an alley-oop pass from Diggins in the midst of a run to put away Tennessee late in the Elite Eight and letting loose with a roar that seemed to come with four years of pent-up volume. For better (as in that moment) or worse (as in the foul trouble that plagued her through much of that game), Peters rides her emotions and energy for all their worth. The injuries never dulled that.
"It actually made it more fun," Peters said of the adversity. "Being out for so long, it makes you really appreciate the game and just being able to play, doing the simple things -- running, being able to practice or being able to lift and work out and do stuff like that. So it just made it a lot more fun for me."
It won't be easy to convince the full house expected at Purcell Pavillion in South Bend that it's so, but little is on the line in the first encounter between these two teams since the Final Four in Indianapolis. Both teams lost to No. 1 Baylor earlier this season, ceding any claim to favorite status to Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and the Lady Bears. Both teams nevertheless control their own destinies when it comes to earning No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, something anything short of an epic rout won't change.
And if last season is any indication, this is only the first of a potentially three- or four-act play staged, in succession, in South Bend, Hartford, the Big East tournament in Hartford and possibly even another Final Four, this time in Denver.
"The fact that we get to play them twice [in the regular season], I think puts a little less emphasis on this game," McGraw said. "This is a game we look at and say, 'How far do we have to go to be ready for March? What do we need to improve on?' I think you don't learn as much about your team when you win by 30 or 40 points, so you want to play a good team so that you can see what your strengths and weaknesses are.
"So I think for us, it's just a measuring stick."
That's the truth going in, and it will be the truth coming out. The two hours between those two are a different story.
If this game is a dry run for future encounters, or at least a measure of future aspirations, it will be the most competitive rehearsal imaginable. Both teams spend much of the season playing for April more than they do playing against an opponent. This is a chance to play the other team. Both have quality wins -- Notre Dame against No. 6 Duke and No. 9 Kentucky, Connecticut against No. 4 Stanford and No. 8 Texas A&M -- but both also have those defeats against Baylor. Neither wants to be the team among themselves, Baylor and Stanford with two losses against the other members of the top quartet.
It's a game for nothing that will be played like it's for everything. It's the kind of game Notre Dame can play because the timing was right for Peters to be a part of the mix.
"She is definitely somebody that changes the game for us," McGraw said. "When she's in the game, we are a much different team -- a much better team."
For these two teams, being better than each other in April is the objective. Being better in January is a start. Notre Dame is just happy Peters is part of it.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
13dBonnie D. Ford