Notre Dame gets another crack at dethroning the UConn dynasty

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. – When people talk women’s college basketball, Connecticut generally is on their tongues’ tips.

Such is the aura surrounding Geno Auriemma’s elite program in its quest for a record-tying 10th NCAA Division I basketball title.

When Auriemma and his Huskies talk women’s teams, Notre Dame is generally at the head of the discussion. Indeed, you can make a good argument that the rivalry between the two schools has become the No. 1 in the game.

There’s mutual respect among the players, starting with first team All-Americans Breanna Stewart of UConn and Jewell Loyd of Notre Dame.

And, of course, there’s mutual respect between the coaches, Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw.

Auriemma and McGraw both got their collegiate starts under current Chattanooga head coach Jim Foster at Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s College.

Tuesday night at 8:30 inside a packed Amalie Arena in the Channelside district by Tampa Bay, second-ranked Notre Dame, 36-2 and winner of 22 straight, and top-ranked Connecticut, 37-1 and winner of 36 in a row, meet for the second time this season and for the second straight season in the NCAA Division I championship game as they continue what seems like a boxing match of endless rounds.

Well, it’s Round 44 with UConn ahead 32-11 on the cards.

“It is not going to be any fun, believe me,” Auriemma said. “They’re a lot like us. And I think that’s why they have had success against us. They have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and a program. We give them problems like other teams in the country don’t and they give us problems like other teams in the country don’t.”

UConn and Notre Dame have become must-see TV (on ESPN) in recent years as much as UConn and Tennessee were when Pat Summit ruled the roost in Rocky Top.

“I think it’s a rivalry people want to see,” said McGraw, who has Notre Dame in its fourth national title game in the last five years and an NCAA title in 2001 on her resume. If her Irish win Tuesday, McGraw will have 700 victories at Notre Dame in 28 seasons. “I think it’s two well-known teams and the games – we’ve had some good ones in the past are what people want to tune into.”

The last three might have caused even the highly competitive McGraw to consider changing the channel. There was an 83-65 victory by UConn at the 2013 national semifinals in New Orleans that followed three Irish victories during the regular season. Then came last year’s 79-58 UConn triumph in a game that featured the first two unbeaten teams ever meeting in a national title game, one that Notre Dame played without injured All-America forward Natalie Achonwa.

And finally, there’s UConn’s 76-58 victory over then top-ranked Notre Dame on Dec. 6 in South Bend, a game during which the Huskies rallied from 10 points down with a little more than 10 minutes gone in the game. Six-foot-2 redshirt sophomore forward Morgan Tuck scored 25 points while the 6-foot-4 Stewart had 15. They more than offset a 31-point performance by Loyd and 11 points from point guard Lindsay Allen.

One of those who didn’t step up – 6-foot-3 freshman forward Brianna Turner – couldn’t as she sat out the game with a shoulder injury suffered on Dec. 3 in Notre Dame’s 92-72 victory over Maryland, the team UConn beat in Sunday’s semifinals, 81-58, following Notre Dame’s cardiac-creating 66-65 elimination of South Carolina.

“She’s so skilled – you don’t get a kid who can do as many things as she can around the basket,” said Auriemma of Turner, who is averaging 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game and leads the nation in field-goal shooting (64.8 percent) though she missed a couple of easy layups against South Carolina before fouling out Sunday. “She reminds me of (Stewart) a little bit except she doesn’t have the perimeter game that Stewie has.”

Stewart paces five Huskies in double figures with her 17.8 average along with 7.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. Then comes Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a senior winger at 14.9 points per game who has hit 119 of 241 3-pointers (49.4 percent) this season. Tuck is next at 14.5 points, followed by nifty-swifty point guard Moriah Jefferson (12.4) and Kia Nurse (10.3). Sixth-man Gabby Williams (8.5) is not far behind, either.

“(Stewart) is a difficult matchup because of her size and her ability to play on the perimeter and on the inside,” McGraw said. “We’ve got a couple of ideas we’re going to try.”

But it’s an even more difficult task when you consider the cast Auriemma and his staff have recruited around her. Stewart, Mosqueda-Lewis and Jefferson all have received All-America honors and some, including McGraw, think Tuck should have received her due, too.

“I think she’s their second best player,” McGraw said. “I thought in the game we had with her (in December) she was the best player on their team. She’s incredibly overlooked.”

Back in December, there were so many Huskies having big days that you would have thought the Purcell Pavilion was the starting point for the Iditarod. Auriemma even got this mind-boggling performance off his bench from 6-foot-3 senior Kiah Stokes – six points, 18 rebounds and four blocks – that it left McGraw questioning her team’s toughness that day.

But not anymore after Sunday when Allen and Turner were on the bench, their nights finished by five fouls, and the Irish missing easy baskets that it seemed the Easter bunny had quarantined the rim. Notre Dame went 7:35 without a basket, lost its lead in the final minute and then was rescued by bench heroes Madison Cable, whose rebound and whirling put-back provided the winning margin, and Hannah Huffman, whose defense on South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell caused her to throw up an errant 3-pointer as time expired.

It set off an Irish celebration that looked like one after a national championship. But Notre Dame is aware it has one bigger hurdle to jump to have another similar one, and the players will try to use the motivation of Connecticut disappointments past.

“Any time you lose in a game you’re always motivated to win and try to figure out what steps you need to take to finish the goal,” Loyd said. “But that’s last year. It’s a whole different season, different team. We’re just really lucky and blessed to have the opportunity that we have to fight for another national championship.”

Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis celebrates a three-pointer during the NCAA Women's Basketball National Championship game on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, inside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHO: No. 2/2 Notre Dame (36-2) vs. No. 1/1 Connecticut (37-1)

WHAT: NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Game

WHERE: Amalie Arena (21,058), Tampa, Fla.

WHEN: Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN, ESPN3.com with WatchESPN app

N.D. RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9), WHPD-FM (92.1), watchND.tv


STREAKING: Connecticut has won 36 straight since an 88-86 loss in overtime at Stanford on Nov. 17, 2014; Notre Dame has won 22 straight since a 78-63 loss at Miami, Fla., on Jan. 8.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Notre Dame won the Oklahoma City (Okla.) Regional and beat South Carolina, 66-65, in Sunday’s first semifinal; Connecticut won Albany (N.Y.) Regional and beat Maryland, 81-58, in Sunday’s second semifinal.

N.D. VS. UCONN: Huskies lead the series, 32-11. UConn has won the last three meetings. Previous to that, Notre Dame won the seven of the eight before it.

LAST CHAMPIONSHIP: Connecticut 79, Notre Dame 58 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., on April 8, 2014. Final Four most outstanding player Breanna Stewart scored 21 points to lead four Huskies in double figures to spark Connecticut to its second straight NCAA title and ninth overall under head coach Geno Auriemma.