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While most members of the University of Utah women's basketball team were scratching their heads Monday when they found out they would be playing Notre Dame, freshman forward Michelle Plouffe made an immediate connection.

Natalie Achonwa, a freshman guard for the Fighting Irish, played with Plouffe on the Canadian junior national team and at the National Elite Development Academy in Edmonton, Ontario.

"I'm a very competitive person as it is," Plouffe said. "When I meet up with someone I've played with before, that competitiveness comes out a little bit more."

Mark Walton, who coached Plouffe and Achonwa at the development academy and now is an assistant at the University of New Hampshire, said he remembered the two as good friends, sitting together in the back of the bus on road trips, listening to music together.

That they're meeting up in the NCAA Tournament sends a strong message, he said.

"To have them both on the floor at the same time, I think it speaks volumes to the development of Canada basketball," Walton said, "and I think it speaks volume to the poise of those two players in particular."

Harrison brings NCAA experience

The Utes start just one senior, but Michelle Harrison nearly makes up for the rest of the team's lack of tournament experience all by herself.

Harrison is making her fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament. After four seasons with Stanford, including a trip to the NCAA title game last year, Harrison, an Orem native, used her final year of eligibility to return to Utah.

Each of Harrison's trips to the tournament started at home, a streak made perfect by the fact the Utes are hosting this weekend. In Harrison's first four years, Stanford hosted first and second rounds in Palo Alto, Calif.

Playing at home in the tournament can be a challenge, Harrison said, although any downside —┬ásuch as having to stay in a hotel just miles from home — is outweighed by the competitive advantage of playing at home.

"It's very helpful," Harrison said, "especially for those young kids here, since this might be their first time at an NCAA Tournament."

boram@sltrib.comTwitter: @oramb