Notre Dame women's basketball set for bout with old rival UConn

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – The measuring sticks don’t come any bigger for Notre Dame’s young and unbeaten women’s basketball team.

Connecticut.

‘Nuff said.

The two-time defending NCAA champion Huskies, who have in each of the last two years ended the national championship hopes of the Irish at the NCAA Women’s Final Four, will be the guide by which Muffet McGraw evaluates her team's progress.

Tipoff for the 13th annual Jimmy V Women’s Challenge between the 8-0 Irish, ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press and No. 1 by USA Today, and the 5-1 Huskies, No. 3 in both polls, is 3:15 p.m. Saturday before a sellout crowd of 9,149 fans at the Purcell Pavilion and millions more women’s basketball fans watching via ESPN.

With each game it has played this season, Notre Dame has shown itself to be a legitimate threat for the national title this season. The Irish have grown on the frontline, in the backcourt and on the bench with an unselfish, up-tempo brand of basketball that has created headaches for the opposition.

“With this team, every game has been kind of an adventure,” McGraw said.

Reality comes knocking at Notre Dame’s door Saturday against UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s dynasty that now includes nine NCAA titles.

If Notre Dame has any weaknesses, Auriemma and UConn is likely t to exploit them.

“It’s a great rivalry; I think everyone in the country loves this game as much as we do because it’s two programs that have gone against each other a lot of times over the last three seasons,” McGraw said.

UConn owns a 31-11 lead in the series, including victories in the last two Women’s Final Four. The Huskies scored an 83-65 victory in the 2013 NCAA semifinals on way to the title and then won last year’s battle of the unbeaten, 79-58, in the NCAA championship game. Prior to that, the Irish had won seven of eight.

“We’ve made it a better rivalry,” McGraw said. “In the beginning it was one-sided.”

Much of the hype for the early-season showdown has centered around the sometimes rosy/sometimes contentious relationship between the two former Saint Joseph’s College assistants of current Chattanooga women’s head coach Jim Foster.

“When you’re from Philadelphia (as the two coaches are), there’s a lot of sarcasm involved,” McGraw said of the relationship. “We’re fine, we get along well. There’s a lot of respect for what they have accomplished.”

Both McGraw and Auriemma will be directing plenty of current and future All-Americans Saturday.

The availability of one of them – 6-foot-3 freshman forward Brianna Turner of Notre Dame – is still day-to-day, according to a team spokesman, after Turner suffered a right shoulder injury Wednesday in Notre Dame’s 92-72 victory over Maryland. She had an MRI Thursday, and the fact that she’s day-to-day may indicate that Turner (13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds a game with 11 blocks) could play, giving Notre Dame’s improving frontline additional strength to counter the Huskies. In her absence, sophomore Taya Reimer scored a career-high 21 points and reserve forwards Markisha Wright and Kathryn Westbeld each contributed nine points.

Notre Dame’s shining Jewell Loyd, averaging 21.1 points, 5.3 and 3.3 assists per game out of the shadow of past teammates Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa, is being mentioned in the same Player of the Year breaths as fellow junior and two-time NCAA Women’s Final Four Most Outstanding Performer Breanna Stewart of UConn, who knocked down 29 points in an 83-65 NCAA semifinals victory over Notre Dame in 2013 and then blitzed the Irish for 21 points in a 79-58 NCAA Championship in 2014.

Loyd is joined in the backcourt by sophomore point guard 5-foot-7 Lindsay Allen, who is shooting and scoring more (8.6 points a game) while contributing 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists a game, and 5-10 junior Michaela Mabrey, the team’s 3-point shooting star averaging 9.5 points and 3.9 assists a game.

“Our depth is as good as it has ever been,” McGraw said.

The 6-foot-4 Stewart, the 2014 national player of the year, and Loyd are joined on the AP preseason first team by UConn’s 5-foot-11 senior forward/guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who contributed 34 points in the two Women’s Final Four victories over the Irish.

Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart, averaging 18 and 16.7 points a game, respectively, are two of five Huskies scoring in double figures. They are followed by 6-0 freshman guard Kia Nurse (13.7 ppg), 6-2 redshirt sophomore Morgan Tuck (12.5) and 5-7 junior guard Moriah Jefferson (11.2). And if that’s not enough, Auriemma can turn to 6-foot-3 center Kiah Stokes, who is averaging 6.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and has a team-leading 21 blocks.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw chats with UConn head coach Geno Auriemma before the game at Notre Dame on Saturday, January 7, 2012. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHAT: Jimmy V Women’s Classic

WHO: Notre Dame (8-0) vs. Connecticut (5-1)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend.

WHEN: Saturday at 3:15 p.m.

TICKETS: None.

TV: ESPN

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9)/WHPD-FM (92.1)

RANKINGS: Notre Dame is No. 2 and Connecticut No. 3 in the Associated Press media poll; Notre Dame is No. 1 and UConn No. 3 in the USA Today poll.

LAST OUTINGS: Notre Dame beat No. 15 Maryland 92-72 Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Women’s Challenge at Fort Wayne’s Allen County War Memorial Coliseum; UConn beat Wisconsin-Green Bay 89-53 last Sunday in the championship game of the 2014 Gulf Coast Showcase at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla.

LIKELY STARTERS: For UConn, Moriah Jefferson (5-7 Jr.), Kia Nurse (6-0 Fr.) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (6-0 Sr.) as guards with Breanna Stewart (6-4 Jr.) and Morgan Tuck (6-2 So.) as forwards; For Notre Dame, Jewell Loyd (5-10 Jr.), Michaela Mabrey (5-10 Jr.) and Lindsay Allen (5-7 So.) as guards with Taya Reimer (6-3 So.) and Brianna Turner (6-3 Fr.) or Kathryn Westbeld (6-2 Fr.) as forwards.

WORTH NOTING: This is the 13th game in the Jimmy V Women’s Classic that benefits the foundation that honors the late college basketball coach and ESPN color analyst. … ESPN has announced that the two teams, which used to meet at least twice annually as Big East Conference rivals, will be the participants in the 14th game next December in Connecticut. … In the latest NCAA statistics, Notre Dame leads the nation in scoring per game at 94.8 and in margin of victory (43.5 points), while UConn is third in scoring (91.5 ppg) and second in margin of victory (38.2 points). … UConn is No. 1 in field-goal shooting (53.0 percent) and Notre Dame No. 2 (52.7 percent). … The Irish have held their opponents to 32.5 percent shooting (17th) while UConn’s foes have shot 33.5 percent (27th). … UConn is No. 4 in 3-point shooting (43.2 percent) and No. 5 in 3-pointers per game (10.5) while Notre Dame is No. 7 (42.0 percent) and 121st (5.9) respectively. … Notre Dame is No. 5 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.69) and UConn No. 9 (1.48). … Notre Dame’s rebound margin of plus 16.3 per game is fifth nationally while UConn’s 12.7 is 15th.