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Can Mississippi State defense slow down Notre Dame offense?

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Fortner: ND is going to struggle containing McCowan (1:34)

Nell Fortner says that Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan will present 'a lot of problems' for Notre Dame in the championship game coming off of her electric performance against Louisville. (1:34)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Notre Dame and Mississippi State, which will play Sunday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET) for the national championship, have never met before in women's basketball. But coaches Muffet McGraw and Vic Schaefer have faced off before in a previous title game.

In 2011, Schaefer was an assistant to Gary Blair when their Texas A&M team beat McGraw's Irish in the final. Schaefer was in charge of the Aggies' defense. Texas A&M won the program's only NCAA title then with a 76-70 victory, a difficult loss for the Irish to swallow.

That year, they had defeated Tennessee in the Elite Eight and UConn in the national semifinals, becoming the only program to beat those two teams in the same NCAA tournament. But it still didn't get the Irish their second title.

Since, the Irish have been to the Women's Final Four five more times -- they have eight trips total -- but haven't been able to add to their 2001 NCAA trophy. Notre Dame has been responsible for four of UConn's eight losses in the national semifinals, but that title 17 years ago is the only one that followed a big victory over the Huskies.

"Any time you beat Connecticut, because of the dominance of their program, it's just such an emotional win," said McGraw, in her 31st season at Notre Dame. "It makes it really hard to kind of get back to work. You feel like that should have been the championship game."

Mississippi State knows that feeling, too, because the Bulldogs experienced it last year: beating UConn in the semifinals, but then losing to South Carolina in the final. Fact is, it hasn't been easy for anyone to bounce back after knocking off UConn.

Since the Huskies won their first of 11 NCAA titles in 1995, the team that has defeated UConn in the NCAA tournament has gone on to win the championship only three times: Tennessee in 1996 and '97, and Notre Dame in 2001.

Nine teams have defeated the Huskies and then fallen short of a title: NC State (1998), Iowa State (1999), Stanford (2005 and 2008), Duke (2006), LSU (2007), Notre Dame (2011 and 2012) and Mississippi State (2017).

To avoid that fate a third time, Notre Dame will have to contend with a Schaefer-designed defense that he acknowledges isn't his best ever but is still pretty good. It will need to be against Notre Dame.

"He's got just a great mind for defensive philosophy," McGraw said. "He is great at getting his team to do exactly what he wants them to do. They are pressure all the time. They take a lot of pride in their defense.

"He is somebody that I have great respect for, and I know that he's done a great job at Mississippi State to bring that program to where it is now from where they were when he got there."

The Bulldogs have held opponents to 56.3 points per game this season, and 59.8 in their five NCAA tournament games. Notre Dame is not nearly as strong a defensive team as the Irish often have been in the past, allowing foes to score 68.0 PPG this season. That has increased to 80.0 in the NCAA tournament. But Notre Dame's offense -- averaging 92.4 PPG in five NCAA tournament games -- has carried the Irish.

Even though the playing personnel has changed completely since that meeting seven years ago with Notre Dame, Schaefer said the essence of the Irish is the same. And that's what he and the Bulldogs must contend with Sunday.

"They just have so many weapons offensively and so many ways they can score," Schaefer said. "They pass interiorly well -- in the lane, 10 feet, five feet -- they're just really good. They're smart and heady.

"They have tremendous leadership, and that starts at the top. I think you just admire that. From the standpoint of maturity, leadership, they all have a presence. That's what their program is about. And that's what our program is about."