Notre Dame, UConn women battle for basketball perfection

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — History already reigns at Tuesday’s NCAA women’s basketball national championship, as Notre Dame takes on Connecticut in an unprecedented meeting of unbeaten teams in the title game.

Notre Dame’s task is making sure that when the balloons and confetti fall at Bridgestone Arena, that the magical night becomes even more historic for the Irish. Tip-off to the pursuit for perfection is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. EDT, and ESPN has the telecast.

Notre Dame (37-0) seeks to climb to the women’s basketball mountaintop for the second time. The Irish won the national title in 2001. Defending champion Connecticut (39-0) is seeking a record ninth title.

“It’s awesome anytime you are a part of history and changing the outlook of the women’s game,” said Irish star Jewell Loyd. “This is something we’ve tried to do for a long time.”

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said that the talk of a potential matchup of unbeaten teams in the national championship started in early February.

“I think the whole country was distracted with that and enamored with the matchup, that it’s kind of nice to be in that moment,” McGraw said. “We really tried to block it all out, and I thought we did a really good job of that during the year. But now, it’s great to have the two best teams in the country playing each other for a national championship.”

Each team handed the other its last defeat. Connecticut beat Notre Dame, 83-65, in last season’s national semifinal meeting in New Orleans. The Irish beat Connecticut, 61-59, on the Huskies’ home court in Hartford for the Big East Tournament title last season.

Notre Dame beat Connecticut three times last season, and has won seven of the past nine meetings. Connecticut owns the all-time series, 30-11.

This season, the Irish and Huskies headed different directions but maintained their standards of excellence. Each school left the Big East, Notre Dame for the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Connecticut for the American Athletic Conference.

The Irish are in the Final Four for a fourth consecutive season, a feat only accomplished by five other schools (Connecticut, Tennessee, LSU, Louisiana Tech and Stanford). Connecticut is in the Final Four for a seventh consecutive season.

In last season’s national semifinal game, 6-foot-4 Breanna Stewart hit the Irish with 29 points, including 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. This season, Stewart is averaging 19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds and swept the major national player of the year awards.

“I think Stewart’s a real matchup problem for us,” McGraw said. “She’s somebody who is hard to guard because of her inside/outside ability.”

Stefanie Dolson, a 6-5 senior, averages 12-3 points and 9.1 rebounds. Kiah Stokes, a 6-3 junior, averages 4.5 points and 7.1 rebounds.

Connecticut’s height advantage is a serious concern for the Irish, who are playing without 6-3 starter Natalie Achonwa. A senior who averaged 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds, Achonwa suffered a torn ACL in her left knee in last week’s regional championship game against Baylor.

Jewell Loyd, a 5-10 sophomore who will have to spend plenty of time guarding Stewart, said that the most critical area for a smaller Notre Dame team is rebounding. In Sunday’s 87-62 rout of Maryland, the smaller Irish stunned the Terrapins with a 50-21 rebounding advantage, including a 19-4 edge on the offensive boards. That translated into 20 second-chance points for the Irish, compared to three by Maryland.

“On the boys side or on the girls side, the biggest thing is being able to rebound and make free throws,” Loyd said. “That is what we took away from last year’s game (the Final Four loss to Connecticut).”

Irish post Ariel Braker said that the Irish will have to match Connecticut’s aggressive play inside.

“They are a really physical team, and we can’t back down from the challenge,” Braker said. “We are going to have to be physical and also slow them down on defensive transition.”

Notre Dame’s ability to put two prolific scorers on the wings, Kayla McBride (17.5 points a game) and Loyd (18.7), is the focus of Connecticut’s defense.

Auriemma said that the Huskies have to make McBride and Loyd struggle on offense, which they did in last season’s national semifinal game. Loyd was 5-of-17 and McBride was 5-of-20. The Irish shot 30 percent in that game.

“There’s no matchup for Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think anybody in the country has figured out how to guard those two.”

Notre Dame and Connecticut each have high-powered transition games, and each has the 3-pointer as a weapon. The Irish will be counting on their transition game more against the taller Connecticut crew.

Mirror images of statistics reflect the Irish and Huskies domination of their seasons.

Both teams feature high-octane offenses with balanced scoring. Notre Dame averages 86.8 points and Connecticut 82.2.

Both teams play a relentless defense. Notre Dame allowed 61.2 points a game, Connecticut 47.6.

Both teams shoot the ball with exceptional accuracy. Notre Dame hit 51 percent of its shots and Connecticut 50.

Both teams rebound. Notre Dame outrebounded its opponents by a margin of plus-10, while Connecticut was at plus-9.0.

Notre Dame and Connecticut know each other extremely well, playing 12 times in the previous three seasons.

Auriemma doesn’t like the similarities.

“If somebody were to ask me what’s the biggest downside to playing these guys tomorrow is that we’re just too similar,” Auriemma said. “We do a lot of the same things; that’s not always good.”

For Auriemma, Tuesday’s showdown is about hitting shots.

“If one team shoots 55 percent, there’s no way the other team is going to win unless the other team gets every offensive rebound, like Notre Dame did (against Maryland).”

Notre Dame would love to get to Connecticut’s bench, either by drawing fouls, or by using its depth and a running game to try to wear down the Huskies. Connecticut, also hit by injuries, has been playing primarily with a six-person rotation.

One thing that won’t happen, according to Loyd, is for the Irish to be intimidated by Connecticut because of its stature, or last season’s Final Four outcome.

“We’ve never been intimidated by them,” Loyd said of Connecticut. “We are playing for Notre Dame, Natalie Achonwa, coach (McGraw), the seniors, and our community back home — that is what we are more concerned about, rather than their jerseys.”

Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo_NDInsider

Notre Dame's Madison Cable, left, puts up a shot against Connecticut's Breanna Stewart during last year's national semifinal game in New Orleans (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)