It would seem like the grandest stage possible.
The Notre Dame women's basketball team (16-0, 5-0 Big East) hosts No. 1 Connecticut (13-0, 4-0) at 2 p.m. today in a game to be shown nationally on ESPN.
But 6-1 junior Ericka Haney from Toledo played in many a big game when she led Central Catholic to three straight regional appearances and the 1998 DivisionI state semifinal. She wasn't intimidated then, she won't be intimidated now.
“We play them every year, so it's nothing really new to us,'' Haney said in a telephone interview. “We know they're the No. 1 team in the country, but we're just gonna go in there and play the game we normally play.
“We have a no-fear attitude. We think we can compete with anyone.”
What is new this season is that Haney - a two-time City League player of the year, two-time Blade player of the year and two-time All-Ohio first-teamer - is starting for the No. 3-ranked Irish , who are off to their best start ever.
She is averaging 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in just under 29 minutes a game. The guard/forward is shooting 47 percent from the field and 66 percent at the free-throw line. She has become a presence on the national stage.
Haney was on a roll last month. She opened with a 13-rebound performance against North Carolina on Dec. 3. On Dec. 21, she threw in a team-high 21 points against Marquette. She went on to post team highs of 18 points and 12 rebounds in a win over Rice on Dec. 31.
She scored 17 points in a 75-55 win Saturday over Virginia Tech, which extended Notre Dame's home winning streak to 31 games.
“She does a lot of things for us. She's very capable and athletic,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She's got a quick advantage on just about everybody. We post her up a lot. There aren't really any guards that can guard her down on the block. And if they go out with her, she can go right by them.”
Better still, McGraw said, “I think she plays without fear. She'll go to the basket on anyone. We always know she'll come out and play well in a big game.”
Haney will certainly get her chance. Her coach said she'll be matched up with either All-American Shea Ralph (11.0 points per game, 3.6 assists) or Connecticut's leading scorer, two-time All-American Svetlana Abrosimova (13.2 points, 4.4 assists).
“(Haney) can be a very good defender,'' her coach said. “We really need her to do a better job on the boards, and that's something we look for Ericka to do.”
“The big thing is dealing with (Connecticut's) press,'' Haney said. “That's the thing we need to concentrate on.
“But I don't think there's any pressure. We're No.3, they're No.1. I think the pressure is really on them. It's gonna be a great game.”
McGraw said Haney has expanded her shooting range and become a much better passer, dramatically improving her assists-to-turnover ratio. “There's no question her game has improved tremendously in terms of decision-making.”
At Central, decision-making was hardly a factor as she scored 1,343 points and grabbed 1,124 rebounds while leading the Irish to an 87-12 record and three straight City League titles.
Thus, it was simply a matter of time before Haney, who is carrying a 3.3 grade-point average while studying communications, began to blossom on the collegiate level.
“First, I had to learn what coach McGraw wanted from me. After that, things started to flow more easily. Now, I can easily fit into my role and do the things I wanted to do,'' she said. “This is the first year I've averaged in double figures. All five starters are in double figures. I'm pretty happy with that, but I think I could be a lot better.”
The main thing she's looking for is more consistency, she said.
But one thing that hasn't changed is her sunny disposition.
“It's fun (playing for Notre Dame),'' she emphasized. “We get along so well.”
McGraw is quick to second that emotion.
“She adds a lot to the team chemistry. She's fun. She keeps the team loose.”
That may be her most important attribute today as Notre Dame attempts to beat the Huskies for the first time.