Can undermanned Notre Dame women repeat past success at UConn?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

STORRS, Conn. — It’s been done.

Albeit, under different circumstances.

The UConn women’s basketball team, as towering a symbol of dominance as there may be in any sport, has won 48 consecutive games inside Connecticut’s borders, and three consecutive national championships.

But the last time Geno Auriemma’s Huskies lost in their home state, the opponent was Notre Dame.

And the last time they lost in the NCAA Tournament … the opponent was Notre Dame then, too.

The lesson to be learned from Notre Dame’s two victories in Connecticut in 2013 (in Storrs, Conn., during the regular season and later in Hartford in the Big East Tournament), as well as its NCAA Tournament triumph in 2012, is that UConn — however great, however seemingly infallible — can be beaten. And, more specifically, beaten by the Irish.

But as for this team, with these injuries?

No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) will get its answer to those questions on Saturday night, when it arrives on a national stage to resume its rivalry with No. 1 UConn (5-0), which defeated the Irish in each of the last two national championship games.

Certainly, this isn’t the Irish team that conquered the Huskies three times in the 2012-13 season, featuring transcendent stars (such as Skylar Diggins) and rising sensations (such as Jewell Loyd). Heck, this isn’t even the same group that posed for team pictures on Media Day.

When Notre Dame takes the floor inside Gampel Pavilion on Saturday, sophomore forward Brianna Turner (shoulder) and highly touted freshman guard Ali Patberg (knee) won’t be available to contribute. Junior forward Taya Reimer (achilles), who would potentially be tasked with guarding UConn All-American forward Breanna Stewart, is listed a game-time decision.

Even without a few of the headliners, though, it’s still Notre Dame and UConn.

And if history has proven anything, it’s that the Irish have a chance.

“I think it’s the biggest rivalry in women’s college basketball,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “It’s a game everybody looks forward to. It’s disappointing that we’re not at full strength playing on their court.

“They’re a great team this year. I think they’re even better than last year, and we’re a team that’s still growing and finding our way. It’s going to be a great experience for the freshmen. I’m really excited about the opportunity.”

Those freshmen, guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale, will have to be significant contributors in their first taste of the sport’s premier rivalry game. Mabrey is averaging 11.7 points and 3.7 steals through seven games, while Ogunbowale has contributed 9.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

“I feel like every game I’m getting better — whether it’s learning the rotations, learning the offense better, starting to read offenses, trying to read defensive plays,” Mabrey said. “Every single game I’m more comfortable.”

It’ll be up to a veteran, however, to carry the load. That’ll likely be fifth-year senior guard Madison Cable, one of the few Irish players who was on the roster the last time Notre Dame defeated UConn in 2013. This version of Cable, however, is vastly improved, as the do-it-all senior is averaging 16.4 points per game while shooting a whopping 57.6 percent from beyond the arc.

She’ll need to be as good as advertised on Saturday.

“It’s amazing what she’s been able to do for us this year,” McGraw said of Cable. “She’s shooting the ball so well. We just can’t take her out of the game. We feel like we have to have her in at both ends.

“She’s going to step in and take the big charge. She’s going to get the big rebound, and she’s going to make the big shot. We haven’t had a player like that in a few years.”

Notre Dame hasn’t beaten UConn in a few years, either.

But it can be done. Cable has seen it.

Replicating it, however, might not be so simple.

“We just have to be confident going in,” Cable said. “We can’t be scared to play them. They’re obviously a great team, but if you’re scared, it’s not going to turn out well. We just have to go in there and play our hardest.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Madison Cable (22) shoots over Ohio State’s Shayla Cooper (32) Wednesday, December 2, 2015, during the Ohio State-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. No. 1 Connecticut (7-0)

WHEN: Saturday, 5:15 p.m.

WHERE: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Cnn.

TV: ESPN

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1)