Notre Dame, Mabrey show familiar fight in loss at No. 1 UConn

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

STORRS, Conn. — It didn’t take long to figure out that Saturday’s game was different.

When the Notre Dame women’s basketball team arrived at Gampel Pavilion a little after 3 p.m., riding in a bus with the words “Here come the Irish!” printed on a green poster on the windshield, it pulled past lines of fans hooking around the golf ball-shaped building, waiting to get inside. Scalpers made laps from the north to the east entrances, murmuring, “I’ve got tickets … tickets … tickets,” as they passed.

The bus turned right on Jim Calhoun Way, which was blocked off to the public by a police barricade, and towards the arena with 14 national championship banners hanging from its paint-peeled roof.

More than an hour before tip-off, the students were already stuffed inside — a sea of white t-shirts stretching from the front row to the rafters. A few of them, in defiance of the fall weather, were shirtless, the word “C-H-A-M-P-1-0-N-S” not-so-subtly denoting the program’s 10 national titles on their chest.

The atmosphere, the national stage, the rivalry — it was all so visibly different than the seven games that preceded it.

As was the final score.

No. 3 Notre Dame connected on 13 3-pointers, tying a school record, but eventually dropped its first game of the season to No. 1 UConn, 91-81.

“I was really proud of the effort, just the way we battled,” head coach Muffet McGraw said. “It shows a lot of character, a lot of just perseverance and that relentless attitude that these seniors are really directing.”

The seniors may have done the leading, but Marina Mabrey did the scoring. Without starting forwards Brianna Turner (shoulder) and Taya Reimer (achilles), the 5-foot-11 freshman quickly ascended to superstar status. Mabrey scored 21 of her team-high 23 points in the first half alone, dropping in 9 of 11 field goal attempts and three 3-pointers. She attacked the basket with fearless aggression, swiveling around the likes of Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck before finishing acrobatically at the rim.

In the eighth game of her collegiate career, Mabrey looked right at home.

“She’s coming off an all-tournament selection in the Bahamas against some really good competition. She’s played well for us in a lot of games this year,” McGraw said. “But to come in here as a freshman in this atmosphere, (that) shows the fearless quality that she has.

“The thing I love about her is that she’s just not going to back down from anyone, and that’s really going to bode well for us in the future.”

Added UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, his raspy monotone tinged with exasperation: “I thought she was going to get 50. I don’t know what the record is against us. I thought she was going to get 50, myself.”

Auriemma, whose name already resides on two Hall of Fame banners in Gampel Pavilion’s rafters, left the court muttering at halftime, his team clinging desperately to a 45-43 lead.

But when the third quarter started, UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson was tasked with face-guarding Mabrey, and the whole game changed.

“She’s a great defender,” Mabrey said. “I’ve never had that before in college, so it’s just something I’m going to learn from.”

UConn (6-0) outscored Notre Dame (7-1) 27-13 in the third quarter, pouncing on Irish turnovers and converting them into points. Unsurprisingly, Stewart led the way with 28 points and 10 rebounds, while Tuck added 21 points, eight assists and seven boards.

Undersized and undermanned, Notre Dame ultimately fell — but not for a lack of trying. Five Irish players finished in double figures, including senior guards Madison Cable (17 points) and Michaela Mabrey (11).

In a different atmosphere, with a different lineup, the Irish produced a familiar fight.

“They had Jewell Loyd and Turner and Reimer last year in the Final Four, and they scored, what, 60?” Auriemma asked. “Tonight, without those guys, they almost got 100. Basketball is a funny game, you know?

“They’re going to be hard to beat. I don’t see too many people beating them this year. Those guys are getting a lot of experience, so when their big guys do come back, they’re going to be really, really, really good.”

NOTRE DAME (7-1): Allen 5-12 0-0 11, Cable 5-13 4-4 17, Mi. Mabrey 4-5 0-0 11, Huffman 0-2 0-0 0, Westbeld 1-5 1-2 3, Ogunbowale 4-9 1-4 12, Ma. Mabrey 10-13 0-0 23, Nelson 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 31-63 6-10 81.

UCONN (6-0): Tuck 6-14 9-13 21, Jefferson 6-12 0-0 14, Nurse 3-5 2-2 9, Williams 2-4 2-2 6, Stewart 12-18 4-5 28, Chong 0-1 0-0 0, Collier 0-2 0-0 0, Samuelson 4-7 2-2 13. Totals 33-63 19-24 91.

Halftime--Notre Dame 43-45. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 13-20 (Ma. Mabrey 3-3, Mi. Mabrey 3-4, Ogunbowale 3-4, Cable 3-6, Allen 1-2, Westbeld 0-1), UConn 6-18 (Samuelson 3-6, Jefferson 2-5, Nurse 1-2, Tuck 0-1, Chong 0-1, Collier 0-1, Stewart 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 29 (Westbeld 8), UConn 33 (Stewart 10). Assists--Notre Dame 16 (Allen 6), UConn 19 (Tuck 8). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 21, UConn 17. A--10,167.

Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey, right, shoots around Connecticut’s Katie Lou Samuelson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)