UConn frustrates Notre Dame women's basketball in top-two battle

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Now it becomes of matter of: Where do they go from here?

How does the second-ranked Notre Dame women's basketball team move on from a convincing 72-61 setback to top-ranked Connecticut? With determination? With regression?

Frustration ruled the postgame aftermath Thursday as UConn (8-0) extended its winning streak to 83 games, just seven short of the NCAA record, and clearly defined which team is the best in the sport in this particular snap shot.

"We can’t feel good about the way we played. That’s where the frustration is,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

Her team shot only 3-of-14 from the 3-point line, threw the ball out of bounds at least five times attempting to hit open post player Brianna Turner. And when the favored Irish transition game did not materialize, the Notre Dame half-court offense sputtered and stagnated.

But McGraw looked at the 1-vs.-2 matchup as more a stepping stone for growth than a defining showdown. And she'll have plenty of teaching points as The Irish (8-1) begin a string of six straight road games with a Saturday date at DePaul.

"It’s a game in December," she said. "We can learn a lot from this. We have a lot of room to grow.”

The Irish started with a whimper, falling behind 11-2, and finished that way too. After beating UConn seven of eight times a handful of years ago, the Irish now have lost five straight to their former Big East rivals.

“A bright spot for us was the play of the bench,” McGraw said. “Jackie Young got a major test. She did a pretty good job for her first game on the big stage. We got some good minutes from Mychal Johnson off the bench.”

The freshman, Young, scored seven points, grabbed four rebounds and had four steals before landing badly on her right ankle late in the game. She was helped off the floor and was termed “doubtful” by McGraw for the next Irish game.

Turner led the Irish with 16 points, but most of that scoring came in a late flurry after the game had been decided.

Despite the awful start, Notre Dame rallied and took a four-point lead on a Turner basket with 2:24 remaining in the second quarter. The half ended at 34-34. Connecticut broke quickly in the third quarter, scored the first eight points to go up 42-34, but again Notre Dame climbed back in, cutting the deficit to one point on a Lindsay Allen free throw with 49 second remaining in the quarter.

Two quick turnovers and a foul by the Irish enabled the Huskies to go up by seven entering the final quarter and it was downhill from there.

Napheesa Collier led Connecticut with 20 points, Gabby Williams added 19 and sharpshooter Katie Samuelson had 18 despite being hounded most of the game by Young.

“She guarded Samuelson well, but got beat off the dribble a few times,” said McGraw.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma thought the game was a defensive struggle.

“It was hard for both teams to run any kind of offense,” he said, “because the defense on both ends of the floor was really, really tough.”

The biggest Irish problem indeed was its half-court offense, one that deteriorated into a one-on-one exhibition.

“It is not our intent to play one-on-one," McGraw said. "That was our problem. It is our intent to share the ball and move the ball. Our frustration and impatience showed early and it turned into a one-on-one offense. That was disappointing to us.”

Auriemma was concerned about the amount of time his starters were on the floor. UConn had three players go all 40 minutes (Williams, Samuelson and Kia Nurse).

“They are not an easy team to defend,” Auriemma said. “They have players who are hard to guard. It seems at every position they have someone not easy to defend.”

But his Connecticut players did make the big plays when needed offensively.

“Players ended up having to make a play," he said. "There was very little transition. There were so many possessions where it was such a grind. I don’t know that either team after the second quarter had enough energy to run transition offense.”

Likely both teams would like to meet again, because that would mean both had a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies outscored Notre Dame 19-4 at the foul line, a statistic that caught McGraw’s eyes.

“I wondered about the fouls myself,” she said. “I can’t wait to see the film.”

Neither team shot well, with UConn going 26-of-54 for 46.4 percent and the Irish 27-of-63 for 42.9 percent. Connecticut had a slight 35-32 edge in rebounding.

UConn (8-0): Napheesa Collier 7-9 6-6 20, Gabby Williams 7-17 5-6 19, Katie-Lou Samuelson 7-16 3-3 18, Kia Nurse 2-6 4-4 8, Crystal Dangerfield 2-4 0-0 4, Saniya Chong 1-3 1-1 3, Natalie Butler 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 26-56 19-20 72.

Notre Dame (8-1): Brianna Turner 7-14 2-2 16, Lindsay Allen 5-8 1-4 11, Arike Ogunbowale 4-14 1-2 9, Kathryn Westbeld 4-7 0-0 8, Jackie Young 3-4 0-0 7, Erin Boley 1-2 0-0 3, Mychal Johnson 1-3 0-0 3, Marina Mabrey 1-8 0-0 2, Kristina Nelson 1-3 0-0 2, Totals 27-63 4-8 61.

UConn 23 11 16 22 —72

Notre Dame 14 20 9 18 —61

3-Point Goals--UConn 1-9 (Samuelson 1-4, Chong 0-1, Dangerfield 0-1, Nurse 0-2, Williams 0-1), Notre Dame 3-14 (Boley 1-1, Johnson 1-2, Young 1-1, Allen 0-1, Mabrey 0-4, Ogunbowale 0-4, Westbeld 0-1). Assists--UConn 18 (Williams 6), Notre Dame 14 (Allen 8). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--UConn 35 (Williams 12), Notre Dame 32 (Turner 12). Total Fouls--UConn 15, Notre Dame 19. A--9,149.

Notre Dame’s Kathryn Westbeld (33) runs into Katie Lou Samuelson (33) and fouls her during the Connecticut at Notre Dame women’s basketball game at Purcell Pavilion Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA