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Holloway in another Final Four, but on a grander scale
 

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Holloway in another Final Four, but on a grander scale
  • Nov. 17, 2011; South Bend, IN, USA;

    Nov. 17, 2011; South Bend, IN, USA;

 

Whitney Holloway could only watch from her living room Notre Dame's loss to Texas A&M in last year's women's national championship basketball game.

She wasn't wearing the Irish colors yet but didn't need to. It still stung.

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"It definitely hurt a little bit," said Holloway, then a senior at Montini. "Not as much, but it hurt a little. I followed the team throughout the whole season and I committed when I was a sophomore, so I kind of felt like part of the team."

This weekend Notre Dame, with Holloway now aboard, is back to finish the deal.

The Irish return to the Final Four with fellow No. 1 seeds Baylor, Stanford and Connecticut -- the first time all four No. 1s have made it since 1989 -- in arguably the strongest field ever. Notre Dame (34-3) will play Big East rival UConn (33-4) in a 5:30 p.m. national semifinal Sunday in Denver, Stanford (35-1) meeting No. 1 and prohibitive favorite Baylor (38-0) in the second game.

The four programs were the top four in the country all year, and all four are motivated to make amends for coming up short last year.

"That's definitely been the motto throughout the whole year, is unfinished business," Holloway said. "We talk about unfinished business all the time."

Holloway is part of quite a local flavor in this year's Final Four. Her former Montini teammate Michala Johnson is a sophomore reserve for UConn, while former Hinsdale Central standout and two-time Daily Herald All-Area Captain Toni Kokenis is a starting guard and third-leading scorer for Stanford.

Playing for a championship is nothing new to Holloway. The 2011 All-Area Captain starred on Montini's Class 3A state championship teams in 2010 and 2011.

A national title, she admitted, would trump those achievements.

"Definitely on a whole another level," she said. "Winning state was great, but winning a championship at the national level would be greater."

Holloway has had to bide her time behind a veteran Irish guard group.

She is averaging a little over eight minutes a game and has played a total of 21 minutes in Notre Dame's four NCAA Tournament games.

Notre Dame's four starting guards are probably the nation's best, led by All-America junior point guard Skylar Diggins. Fifth-year senior guard Natalie Novosel is the second-leading scorer on what is the second-highest scoring team in the country.

Holloway isn't complaining a bit about her place in line.

"I don't worry about playing time," she said. "Coach puts me out there when she needs me. I am learning. I practice every day against Skylar Diggins. It's preparing for when I am at the center of this. I feel if I can guard Skylar in practice I can guard any point guard out there, and I feel if I can score on Skylar in practice I can score on any point guard out there."

Holloway feels a special bond with Diggins and Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey, the point guard on the Irish's 2001 national championship team. Point guard coach Ivey often has the current Irish guards over for dinners.

"I've never second-guessed my decision to come here," Holloway said. "I absolutely love it here. It's the best decision I ever made."

UConn is Notre Dame's unquestioned rival; the teams will meet for the fourth time this season on Sunday. Notre Dame upset UConn in last year's national semifinals and swept both meetings during the regular season, but UConn beat the Irish in the Big East championship game.

That rivaly hasn't prevented Holloway and Johnson from maintaining their friendship from Montini. They talked for a little bit the last time the two teams met, and Holloway said they text or Facebook occasionally to keep in touch.

Two girls from the same high school meeting in the Final Four is probably not setting a precadent, but it's still something special.

"It's amazing," Holloway said. "We definitely knew we'd play against each other, but for me I didn't realize that we were about to come rivals and play multiple times in a season like we are now."

Indeed, this will be the eighth time Notre Dame and UConn have met over the last 14 months, and the game might mean a little extra to the Irish.

UConn, like Stanford, is playing in its fifth straight Final Four. UConn has won seven national championships, but this was supposed to be a rebuilding year after losing Player of the Year Maya Moore.

Winning a national title is the ultimate goal, but Holloway said beating UConn to get there would be huge for the program.

"It feels like we are always in the shadow of UConn when it comes to the Big East, and nationally," Holloway said. "I kind of feel like we are ready to step out of that shadow."

jwelge@dailyherald.com

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