Lesar: Loss to UConn leaves Notre Dame with plenty of questions

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Nine games in, Notre Dame's women's basketball season just got re-booted.

Connecticut can do that to even the best teams.

UConn's 72-61 victory in the mid-season battle for No. 1 Wednesday night scrubbed off the makeup and exposed every pimple in the Irish program.

It wasn't a pleasant sight for Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.

UConn left Purcell Pavilion as the undisputed best team in America pre-Christmas. Notre Dame walked away with a duffel bag of questions.

Actually, it was more perturbing than anything. Coaches can handle frustration, they deal with it on a regular basis. What they can't stand is being caught off guard.

“I was surprised. I didn't expect that,” McGraw said.

A battle to the end, with the game decided at the buzzer, would have been much easier for Muffet to digest, than a lopsided loss that eroded after a flurry of mistakes at the end of the third quarter.

First, some perspective.

The Irish stumbled their way into some early problems that allowed the Huskies to lead by as many as 11 in the first 5 minutes and 10 seconds. By halftime, somehow the Irish managed a tie at 34. Even with that, Notre Dame didn't score a basket in the final 3 minutes and 18 seconds of the second quarter.

Add to that 5 minutes and 37 seconds without a bucket to start the third quarter, and the Irish were parched as the UConn lead was back to eight.

Still, with less than a minute left in the third quarter, Notre Dame was within one.

Then, Irish panic set in. The Notre Dame defense broke down and gave up a pair of layups. Mychal Johnson and Kathryn Westbeld committed turnovers. And UConn led by seven heading into the fourth quarter.

The more seasoned team crumbled with the game on the line.

“That definitely was a bad stretch for us,” McGraw said, understating the obvious.

More than bad, it was pivotal.

“In a game like this, two or three possessions have a big impact, depending on when they come,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “In that moment, when it could have gone into the fourth quarter differently, it kept our confidence level high and it may have had a damper on them.”

It's funny to listen to the two coaches and compare notes.

Auriemma lauded McGraw's strategy to turn key parts of the game into one-on-one situations, allowing the talented Irish players to use their skill and quickness against his Huskies.

McGraw scoffed at the suggestion.

“It was not our intention to play one-on-one,” said McGraw. “That was the problem. We didn't share and move. Our frustration showed early.”

One coach's strategy is another's reason for more gray hair.

There were plenty of frustrating moments to go around.

• Like the five shots within five feet of the basket that Brianna Turner couldn't finish (one of which was an air-ball).

•  Like the 3-of-14 3-point shooting the Irish generated.

•  Like the much-smaller Huskies owning a 35-32 rebounding edge.

•  Like Notre Dame scoring just nine points in that disastrous third quarter.

The tape from this game should be precious in March. If the Irish can get beyond the fragile nature of their team concept, it's a good bet they could see UConn down the road – when the games really count.

A positive takeaway from the loss was a quality effort – on both ends of the floor – by freshman Jackie Young (who left with an ankle injury with three minutes left in the game). She defied the magnitude of the stage. Seven points, four steals, and the relentless pursuit of 6-foot-3 perimeter threat Katie Lou Samuelson acquitted the 6-0 rookie well.

Don't forget the spark from Johnson, whose athleticism allowed her to make an impact (three points, a steal, and solid defense) in 12 minutes. Figure there won't be many days when Turner misses five bunnies and Westbeld commits seven turnovers.

Notre Dame is better than it showed Wednesday night. Probably.

Trust the re-boot to straighten the Irish out. Probably.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw reacts during the Connecticut at Notre Dame women’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA