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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, January 10, 2019 7:00 pm

Pregame: No. 1 Notre Dame (14-1, 2-0 ACC) vs. No. 2 Louisville (14-0, 2-0)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – For the second time in barely five weeks, Purcell Pavilion will be the center of the women's college basketball universe tonight. 

On Dec. 2, No. 2 Connecticut toppled defending champion and No. 1 Notre Dame, 89-71, to ascend to the top ranking. The Huskies let their grip on that top spot slip, however, when they fell to Baylor on Jan. 3. That allowed Notre Dame to climb back to No. 1. 

Now, the Irish have another chance to defend their ranking against the No. 2 team in the country. This time, that second-ranked team is undefeated Louisville, a conference rival against whom the Irish have a score to settle. Notre Dame met the Cardinals twice last season, once in Louisville and once in the ACC Tournament. Louisville won both times, including a 100-67 drubbing during the regular season. Louisville didn't have to visit Purcell Pavilion, however, and the Irish have a chance to even the score on their home floor.

The stakes are just as high for Louisville. The Cardinals can ascend to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history with a win tonight and put themselves in good position to capture the ACC regular season title. The Cardinals were one game away from facing the Irish in the NCAA Tournament final last season, but were toppled by Mississippi State in the Final Four. They're out to finish the job this season and beating the Irish is the next step on that journey.

Leading the charge for the Cardinals is 5-foot-10 guard Asia Durr, who averages 20.9 points and hits 33 percent from beyond the arc. Three other Cardinals also average at least 10 points per contest, giving some balance to a talented team.

For the Irish, the names are familiar: national championship hero Arike Ogunbowale averages 22.1 points, while Jessica Shepard chips in 15.4 points on 60 percent shooting and pulls down 9.5 rebounds per contest. All five starters average in double figures and Brianna Turner, returning from an ACL injury that cost her all of last season, is a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

These are two teams overflowing with talent and the history between them adds another level of mutual antipathy. After the game in the ACC Tournament last season, coaches Muffet McGraw and Jeff Walz had a tense moment during their postgame handshake as McGraw reportedly referred to Durr as the "other player" that won ACC Player of the Year instead of Ogunbowale. Walz didn't like that. 

The coaches have put the moment behind them, but their players have a chance to make a big statement tonight.