Irish just good enough to keep title game close

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. – Just good enough to keep it close.

Not good enough to win.

It’s a fact the Notre Dame women’s basketball team shouldn’t have difficulty living with.

Despite an early-season loss to Stanford. Despite a fool’s gold half-season stay atop the national rankings by South Carolina. Nobody was going to beat top-ranked Connecticut Tuesday night.

When No. 2 Notre Dame contained a couple UConn All-Americans, a couple more stepped up and did the damage in a 63-53 NCAA championship victory over the Irish.

Notre Dame led for just 2 minutes and 3 seconds.

The rest of the game belonged to the Huskies.

For those who dreamed up the Irish as 17-point underdogs, they were better than that. However, Notre Dame spent what seemed to be an eternity trying to climb Mt. UConn.

It was a slippery, slippery slope.

Down two. Down seven. Down five. Down three. Down eight. Down 12. Down five. Down six.

Then… Down six with 5:12 to play. Connecticut’s Kia Nurse had just missed a layup and the Irish were in business. Taya Reimer rebounded and Notre Dame was on the move. After a rotation of the ball, Jewell Loyd found a path to the basket. She got a shot off among the Huskies’ tall timber, but the shot rolled off.

Five seconds into the transition, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis set up and drained a 3-pointer. A five-point swing.

“That’s it. That’s the game,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said of the critical sequence. “It’s really a small window of opportunity when you play a team as good as Connecticut.”

The Irish tried to break that window all night, but never found the comfort zone that got them through 36 wins in their first 38 games.

Shots that were their bread and butter when times got tough weren’t even being taken against the Huskies.

“It was like we were scared in a way,” said Notre Dame junior 3-point specialist Michaela Mabrey. “That comes with experience. That’s why next year will be a lot different.

“You’re not taking the same shots you’ve been taking all season.”

“Everyone was overthinking a little bit,” Loyd said. “We had open shots. Everyone wants to dribble in and attack the post players. We made decisions that we hadn’t made all year. Maybe (we were) a little rattled, trying to do too much.”

The Irish, who shot about 50 percent for the season, struggled at 33 percent (21 of 63) against the Huskies.

“I wouldn’t say overthinking,” said McGraw. “We panicked a little bit. We’d have an open look; we put in on the floor. We picked it up; we didn’t have anywhere to go.

“Our offense is one that flows. When you pick up your dribble, it completely changes the rhythm of your offense.”

The most significant revelation to come from the loss was the play of Irish freshman Brianna Turner over the last 20 minutes. Scoreless with three rebounds and two turnovers at intermission, Turner finished with 14 points and 10 boards while spending a lot of time in a physical battle with Breanna Stewart (eight points, 15 rebounds, four blocks).

“In the first half, I wasn’t aggressive,” Turner said. “In the second half I came out and played aggressive for my team.

“I only played one half tonight. (I learned) I need to play two halves.”

“We came in at halftime and settled (Turner) down,” Mabrey said. “This was the biggest game of her life.”

It wasn’t that Connecticut dominated the action, at least in the first half.

Notre Dame had a lot to do with its 31-23 deficit at intermission. Thirteen turnovers in the first 20 minutes, five in the last 3:43 of the half.

The Irish shot just 30 percent (9-of-30). There were two stretches of frustration. The first, early in the game, they managed to hit just one of 12 shots. They ended the half by connecting on just one of eight tries.

UConn, likewise, struggled on the big stage by hitting 13 of 34 (38 percent).

When McGraw said defending Stewart was going to be a “team effort,” she wasn’t kidding. The Irish used eight players in the first half. Everybody but point guard Lindsay Allen took a turn on her for at least one possession.

Stewart came up a bit gimpy with a twisted left ankle midway through the first half, but returned shortly afterward.

It didn’t bother her much. By halftime she had six points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

It was a physical game. Notre Dame didn’t get its first foul until 3:22 remained in the first half. The Huskies had just four fouls.

A 7-0 spurt early in the second half pushed the UConn lead to 12 and put the Irish in a difficult hole.

A hole that kept the Irish from daylight.

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd (32) looks to pass as she loses her balance in front of Connecticut's Moriah Jefferson (4) during the NCAA women's basketball national championship game on Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)