Tough medicine for Notre Dame women's basketball against UConn

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Good basketball teams become great ones sometimes by digesting the bad things that happen to them as quickly as possible.

For the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, you have to wonder what will be worse: Its 76-58 loss in the Jimmy V Women’s Classic to No. 3 Connecticut Saturday at a sold-out Purcell Pavilion, or the video of that first loss of the season after what had been a promising 8-0 start.

The next couple of days for the Irish, who will fall from their lofty No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press media poll and the top billing in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association/USA Today poll, may be as difficult a medicine to swallow as the ills Saturday’s loss to their biggest rival exposed.

The recovery will have to come quickly because another former Big East rival, No. 25 DePaul, awaits in Chicago Wednesday at 9 p.m.

Though discouraged, McGraw believes her team, which played without 6-foot-3 freshman Brianna Turner and could be without her against DePaul and next Saturday at home against Michigan as her right shoulder heals, can learn from the weaknesses exposed by UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s two-time defending NCAA champions.

“In the long run this will be a good thing for us – we can learn a lot from it,” McGraw said. “I think Jewell (Loyd) was the best player on the floor, but we did not give her any help at all. We are capable of more. We’ve got to figure out why we didn’t perform today.”

Saturday just was not pretty for the Irish, who got a season-high 31 points from their junior All-American, but only 20 more from the other four starters and seven points off the bench. Sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen managed 11 and forward Taya Reimer eight, but Michaela Mabrey, Madison Cable and Mychal Johnson all came up empty on the scoreboard and were a combined 0-for-11 shooting.

“We just looked like deer in the headlights,” McGraw added. “We made some shots early, but when things started to go badly, Jewell really was the only one that wanted the ball.”

Notre Dame shot a season-low 31.4 percent from the floor, with Loyd’s output coming on 10-of-27 shooting because she basically was the only one willing to take her shot. The Irish also compounded their shooting problems with 18 turnovers, while losing the battle of the boards, 52-34.

“I think we need to get tougher,” McGraw said. “We’re not tough enough and we don’t have the mentality or toughness of the last four teams we had.”

Plus, the Irish were unable to find anyone who could stop UConn’s 6-foot-2 sophomore forward Morgan Tuck, who scored a career-high 25 points on 12-of-19 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds, had three assists, two blocks and two steals. Notre Dame had no answer, either, for 6-3 senior center Kiah Stokes, who came off the bench to score six points, block four shots and grab 18 rebounds in 24 minutes.

“Going back to all the games that we have played against Notre Dame,” Auriemma said, “every time we have outrebounded them and shot more free throws than them, we’ve won the game.”

The Huskies (6-1) did win the battle of the boards (54-31) last April when they beat the Irish in the NCAA championship game, 79-58, in Nashville, Tenn. The Irish actually outscored UConn 8-7 on the charity stripe, but Saturday that role was reversed as the Huskies outscored Notre Dame 14-9.

“Morgan (Tuck) was tremendous,” McGraw noted. “She really did everything she wanted. She was the difference in the game – she did a lot of good things. And Kiah Stokes, with her rebounds, was also very impressive.”

Those two were so impressive that 6-4 junior Breanna Stewart, the most outstanding performer in the last two Final Fours for the Huskies, overcame a 3-of-12 shooting night to score 15 points (she was 9-of-10 from the free-throw line) and grab nine boards. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Connecticut’s leading scorer coming in, finished with 12 points and six rebounds while taking Mabrey out of her game. Freshman guard Kia Nurse, a top recruit from Canada, also scored 12.

Connecticut is still in the process of shaking off its own low moment this season – an 88-86 overtime loss at Stanford on Nov. 17 that knocked the Huskies from their preseason No. 1 perch.

“Coming from that loss, we knew that we wanted to change peoples’ views and opinions of our team,” Stewart said. “It’s early on in the season and we have a long way to go, but I think that for us and our mental state of mind, this was a good game.”

It was good early for Notre Dame, which opened up a 28-18 lead with 10:13 to go in the first half on Loyd’s third 3-pointer and the team’s fifth. But after Auriemma got a 30-second timeout to gather his troops and remind them of the game plan, UConn packed the middle and dared Notre Dame to shoot and the Irish went cold.

Notre Dame missed its next 11 shots and UConn went on a 16-0 run over the next six minutes to take control of the game. It was 40-32 at halftime and the Huskies eventually built the lead to 20, the first time at 66-46 with 7:26 to play.

“We have to get tougher,” Loyd said. “We’re going to learn from this, get back to the gym and go to work.”

It’s the only way if Notre Dame hopes for another April rematch with UConn in Tampa.

CONNECTICUT (76): Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis 5-9 0-0 12, Breanna Stewart 3-12 9-10 15, Morgan Tuck 12-19 0-1 25, Kia Nurse 5-7 1-6 12, Moriah Jefferson 0-8 0-0 0, Saniya Chong 0-0 2-2 2, Kiah Stokes 2-3 2-2 6, Gabby Williams 2-3 0-0 4, Sadie Edwards 0-0 0-0 0, Tierney Lawlor 0-0 0-0 0, Briana Pulido 0-0 0-0 0, TOTALS 29-61 14-21 76.

NOTRE DAME (58): Markisha Wright 0-1 1-2 1, Taya Reimer 4-11 0-0 8, Lindsay Allen 5-12 0-0 11, Michaela Mabrey 0-7 0-0 0, Jewell Loyd 10-27 8-9 31, Kathryn Westbeld 2-6 0-0 5, Madison Cable 0-3 0-0 0, Hannah Huffman 1-2 0-0 2, Mychal Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, TOTALS 22-70 9-11 58.

Halftime: Connecticut 40, Notre Dame 32.

Shooting: Connecticut 29 of 61 for 47.5 percent; Notre Dame 22 of 70 for 31.4 percent.

3-pointers: Connecticut 4 of 17 for 23.5 percent (Mosqueda-Lewis 2-5, Nurse 1-2, Tuck 1-4, Stewart 0-3, Jefferson 0-3); Notre Dame 5 of 18 (Loyd 3-8, Westbeld 1-2, Allen 1-2, Johnson 0-1, Mabrey 0-5).

Rebounds: Connecticut 52 (Stokes 18, Tuck 9, Stewart 9, Mosqueda-Lewis 6); Notre Dame 34 (Wright 7, Reimer 6, Westbeld 5, Huffman 4).

Assists: Connecticut 14 (Tuck 3, Mosqueda-Lewis 2, Stewart 2, Jefferson 2, Nurse 2, Chong 2); Notre Dame 12 (Allen 3, Wright 2, Mabrey 2, Loyd 2).

Blocked shots: Connecticut 6 (Stokes 4, Tuck 2); Notre Dame 4 (Reimer 1, Allen 1, Mabrey 1, Loyd 1).

Steals: Connecticut 9 (Tuck 2, Mosqueda-Lewis 2, Stokes 2); Notre Dame 9 (Loyd 4, Allen 3).

Turnovers: Connecticut 24 (Nurse 6, Tuck 5, Jefferson 5); Notre Dame 18 (Loyd 7, Reimer 3, Wright 3, Allen 3).

Total fouls (fouled out): Connecticut 18 (Jefferson); Notre Dame 18 (none).

Officials: Dee Kantner, Eric Brewton, Maj Forsberg.

Records: Connecticut 5-1, Notre Dame 8-0. Attendance —9,149c.

Connecticut’s Kia Nurse (11) drives on Notre Dame’s Michaela Mabrey (23) Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart (30) plays offense Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)
Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd (32) reaches for the ball over a Connecticut defender Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
Connecticut’s Moriah Jefferson (4) drives against Notre Dame’s Markisha Wright (34) Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
Notre Dame’s Madison Cable (22) heads over the stanchion after a ball Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ