Lili Thompson brings past success into Notre Dame's tilt with UConn

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — If they’re even a pinch superstitious, and if she’ll allow it, maybe Notre Dame players should rub teammate Lili Thompson’s head for good luck as they get set to play top-ranked Connecticut in Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised game.

The Irish point guard, after all, is an endangered species in women’s college basketball — an active player who has actually beaten UConn.

Breathtaking as the numbers are, the Huskies are 164-2 since falling to ND at none other than the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. — site of Sunday’s matchup — in the 2013 Big East Tournament final. Both teams are long gone from that league.

One of those scant two losses for UConn is last season’s NCAA Final Four overtime affair against Mississippi State.

The other?

It came in November 2014 at Stanford, when Thompson not only was starting for the No. 6 Cardinal, with the sophomore leading all players with 24 points as her team knocked off the top-ranked Huskies 88-86 in OT.

Connecticut had won 47 straight games before that night, then immediately followed with its record-setting 111-game victory streak.

“That game was just about stepping on the court, playing hard and proving we had a team in that moment that was good enough to beat them, and I still believe it’s about the same thing,” Thompson said Friday as she envisioned slaying the Huskies again, this time as a member of the Irish.

It’s a challenge Thompson embraces.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the highlight of my career — it was a November game and only goes on the scoresheet as one win — but it was one of the most fun games, one of the most competitive,” Thompson said. “It was important for us then, and any time you’re matching up against the No. 1 team, it’s a big game.”

Per Thompson, the talent-oozing Huskies are probably going to make their runs. It’s more about how you handle them.

“I just remember us staying intense and making sure we were sustaining ourselves during their runs,” the graduate transfer recalled. “You don’t want to get down on yourself during a run. Being mentally tough is just as important as being prepared physically.”

Thompson, meanwhile, has been preparing both for UConn and for whatever her own coach, Muffet McGraw, decides in terms of playing time.

A three-year starter and two-time All-Pac-12 player at Stanford before sitting out last season, Thompson was not in the starting lineup for the first time at ND when the Irish won 83-63 at No. 22 Michigan on Wednesday. She still played 29 minutes.

“The starting lineup is always the coach’s decision,” Thompson said. “I want to be out there playing and contributing to the win as much as possible, but I respect whatever decision she makes on who to put on the court.”

Thompson’s production has diminished a bit lately. She’s averaging 3.8 points and 4.3 assists to go with 2.5 turnovers over her last four games, leaving her season figures at 5.7, 5.1 and 2.3, but she's remained a confident player.

And a player who still seems to have her coach’s faith based on overall minutes.

“It’s just nice to look down the bench and see we can sub in a guard," McGraw said. "Plus the other teams are a little bigger, so we want to match up defensively. There will be games when we’ll start the two bigs (Jessica Shepard and Kathryn Westbeld) and games where we’ll go back to the four guards.”

A grade for McGraw

Sunday’s game will mark McGraw’s 1,000th as Notre Dame coach, but she was quick to brush off the milestone.

“Really, none of them, honestly,” the 31st-year Irish coach said when asked which of her career numbers matter most to her. “It’s not about the numbers. It’s just about reaching our potential as a team, and being happy, celebrating the victories.”

There have been 772 of those at ND, against 227 losses. Overall, including 88-41 in five years at Lehigh, McGraw’s at 860-268.

Her 1,000th game at Notre Dame will come just in front of Geno Auriemma’s 1,000th win at Connecticut.

Auriemma — besides his record 11 NCAA titles — is 997-135 in his 33rd year guiding the Huskies.

Head-to-head, he’s beaten McGraw six straight times since that 2013 loss at the XL Center, including in the 2014 and 2015 NCAA title games, and has a 35-11 mark against the Irish coach overall.

And yet, McGraw’s 11 wins remain tied for the most by anybody against Auriemma. Villanova coach Harry Perretta is 11-36 versus the UConn coach.

Maybe for Mabrey

ND junior guard Marina Mabrey — whose two career games against UConn stand in stark contrast to each other — could also reach 1,000 Sunday, hers coming in points.

She needs 15 and is averaging 10.3 this year.

When she does crack four digits, she’ll join Brianna Turner (out for the season due to injury), Thompson (mostly at Stanford), Shepard (mostly at Nebraska) and classmate Arike Ogunbowale (who went over earlier this season) as players on the ND roster at 1,000-plus.

Mabrey had a memorable first encounter with UConn as a freshman in December 2015, pouring in what would be a season-high 23 points in 33 minutes during a 91-81 loss. She went 10-of-13 from the field, including 3-of-3 on 3-pointers.

“Oh, no, I was definitely shaking on the bench,” Mabrey recalled. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I just came in and played. You just go in there and play as hard as you can and not be intimidated.”

Not that it worked in last year’s home game. Mabrey was held to a season-low two points, going 1-of-8 from the field during a 72-61 loss.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. No. 1 Connecticut (6-0).

WHERE: XL Center (16,294), Hartford, Conn.

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: UConn enters as the unanimous No. 1 in both the AP and coaches’ polls; ND is No. 2 in the coaches’ and ranked No. 3 by AP. Both teams are 4-0 against Top 25 members, pacing the nation, with the Huskies’ closest win being 78-60 over No. 5 UCLA … Huskie junior Katie Lou Samuelson (16.5 ppg) has missed the last four games due to a foot injury, but is expected to play. Other UConn stars include senior guard Kia Nurse (16.2 ppg, 17-of-29 on 3s), 6-6 junior Azura Stevens (14.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 36-of-63 from the field), junior Napheesa Collier (14.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.0 spg), sophomore Crystal Dangerfield (14.0 ppg, 5.2 apg, 15-of-31 on 3s) and senior Gabby Williams (12.2 ppg, 3.2 spg), who riddled the Irish a year ago with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals. … ND leaders are junior Arike Ogunbowale (20.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg), sophomore Jackie Young (17.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg), junior Jessica Shepard (13.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg), junior Marina Mabrey (10.3 ppg) and graduate transfer Lili Thompson (5.7 ppg, 5.1 apg). … The Irish, playing their final of seven straight games away from home, have eight available scholarship players after Tuesday’s season-ending knee injury to freshman center Mikayla Vaughn. … ND will be playing at the XL Center, one of UConn’s two home courts, for the first time, since beating the Huskies there, 61-59, in March 2013.

QUOTING: “They’re a great team. This is probably as good a team as they’ve had, and they’ve had a lot of good teams. They just have so many weapons. You can’t lay off anybody. I think everybody you play, no matter how good they are, there’s always one person you can maybe double off of or not worry as much about, but this team has five people that can score the ball pretty much every possession. They play hard, they play well, they play great defensively. … It’s a chance to measure ourselves against the best team in the nation.” — Muffet McGraw.

Notre Dame’s Lili Thompson (1) dribbles down the court during ND's exhibition game with Indiana University of Pennsylvania at Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 1. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)