Confidence high for Notre Dame women's basketball against mighty UConn

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Between fewer meetings over the last five years and fewer wins by the Irish in those five years — zero wins, to be precise — the beaming light on the Connecticut-Notre Dame rivalry that once blinded the rest of women’s college basketball with its intensity has dimmed just a dash.

“That could change tomorrow,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Thursday with a hopeful tone in anticipation of Friday night’s Final Four semifinal between ND (33-3) and the top-ranked Huskies (36-0) at Nationwide Arena.

Indeed, if the Irish can spring the head-spinning upset, or even make big, bad UConn scramble to win, the rivalry between the former Big East foes may crank right back up to full boil.

Even as it is, McGraw already has shown that nobody owns a blueprint anything like hers over the last decade for halting the Huskies.

Consider that in the last 10 seasons, Connecticut has lost more games to the Irish than it has to the rest of the world combined.

The Huskies are 15-7 against ND and 355-6 against everybody else.

Granted, that does include UConn winning all of the last seven meetings on the heels of a three-year stretch in which the teams met four times every season (2010-11 to 2012-13), with the Irish going 7-5 in those particular games.

“It does seem easier, I think, on the coaches to not have to constantly be confronted with Notre Dame this, Notre Dame that, Connecticut this, Connecticut that,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Thursday of the programs heading separate conference ways beginning in 2013, eliminating the league home-and-homes and league tourney meetings.

“But they’re not going away,” Auriemma added of the Irish. “They’ve been around for a long time. We’re not going away (either). So in one sense, I’m thrilled that it’s at a whole different level, but (McGraw) knows and I know we’re always there and they’re always there. The neat thing about it is after every game in December now, I just say to her all the time, ‘I’ll see you in March.’ Because I know if I see (her) in March, it’s going to be in the Final Four. So that’s cool.”

None of the current ND players were part of that sustained Irish glory vs. UConn that was capped off five years ago, but several have said they’re aware of it.

Maybe they’re even buoyed by it.

“We aren’t (intimidated by the Connecticut name),” fifth-year Irish player Kristina Nelson said. “Maybe some teams are, but we aren’t. We just have to go in and play our game.”

“I don’t think even if we played them four times,” junior star Arike Ogunbowale said, “(we’d be) only focused on UConn all year. That’s only four games out of 30. We don’t come to games thinking ‘This is a big rivalry.’ We come to the game like ‘We have to get another win.’”

Added the ever-confident Ogunbowale, “It’s just another team.”

Well, not exactly. It’s indisputably the nation’s best team this season, at least to this moment.

The Huskies have run roughshod over nearly everybody in their path.

They haven’t just been UConn good. They’ve been good even for UConn.

On average, Connecticut’s been up 35 points over its opponents through three quarters.

The only two times the Huskies weren’t up at least 17 — which was the margin in their win over fellow Final Four team Louisville — came when they led by six against Texas and when they trailed by eight in an eventual 80-71 victory on Dec. 3 over none other than visiting Notre Dame.

That’s cause for at least some of the self-assurance among the Irish.

“Probably everybody with the exception of Arike, because she just plays,” McGraw said of who on her team likely gained confidence from the December matchup. “I think Jessica (Shepard) looked at the game. I think Kat (Westbeld) kind of studies the game a little bit differently. Jackie (Young) looked at the game and how that went. So I think we could take a lot from that to see where we went wrong.”

And it did go terribly wrong in the fourth quarter.

After Lili Thompson drained a 3-pointer in the opening minute of the period to give ND a 65-54 lead, UConn overwhelmed the Irish 26-6 the rest of the way.

Thompson later became the fourth and most recent Irish player sidelined for the season by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Other than her, though, ND has the same individuals who played that day.

The Huskies, meanwhile, may be in even better shape personnel-wise than they were in the December battle.

One of their three All-Americans, Gabby Williams, sat out the entire second half with a migraine that day. Another of their All-Americans, Katie Lou Samuelson, missed part of the fourth quarter upon aggravating a foot injury.

One UConn player, sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield, has dealt with shin splints since early February and has been limited in practice ever since, but she nonetheless starred in the team’s most recent game, its regional title win over South Carolina.

Similarly, Westbeld, held out of practices altogether since an ankle injury suffered in ND’s first-round win over Cal State Northridge, starred in her team’s regional title win over Oregon.

She’s expected to play Friday.

“It’s definitely going to be a very competitive game,” Westbeld said. “With the players we have, really what we have to focus on is our game plan and getting stops, and I think we’ll be OK.”

“I think that’s really what it comes down to,” Ogunbowale echoed of the defense. “(Both teams) can score. We both have a high average as a team per game, so it’s definitely who can get the most stops.”

Other keys mentioned Thursday by ND players were staying out of foul trouble due to the limited bench, avoiding turnovers and holding UConn to single shots.

“I think our defensive identity really came to fruition during the Tennessee game,” McGraw said of her team’s record comeback win from 23 points down in mid-January. “I think that was the game we realized, if we can guard, we can win. And that was a turning point for us, because it gave the players the idea that, 'Hey, maybe this commitment to defense is something we could really hang our hats on.'

“And I think we got a lot better from that moment on defensively. We took a lot of pride in it and had more of a commitment to it. We realized it can create offense for us.”

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale and Kristina Nelson smile as the team practices during the NCAA Women’s Final Four media day events Thursday, March 29, 2018 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard shoots as the team practices during the NCAA Women’s Final Four media day events Thursday, March 29, 2018 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
UConn players do a cheer before the NCAA Women’s Final Four media day events Thursday, March 29, 2018 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: Notre Dame (33-3) vs. Connecticut (36-0) in NCAA Tournament national semifinal.

WHERE: Nationwide Arena (19,500), Columbus, Ohio.

WHEN: Friday, approximately 9:30 p.m., following Louisville (36-2) vs. Mississippi State (36-1) in 7 p.m. semifinal.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: Connecticut had its string of four straight national titles ended with last season's semifinal loss to Mississippi State. The Huskies are making their record 11th straight Final Four appearance under coach Geno Auriemma and record 19th overall. He's won a record 11 national titles. UConn features three first, second or third-team All-Americans in junior Katie Lou Samuelson (17.5 ppg, 92-of-194 on 3s for 47 percent), junior Napheesa Collier (15.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and senior Gabby Williams (11.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.1 apg, 2.5 spg). Junior Azura Stevens is averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.4 rpg in just 20.7 minutes off the bench, and senior Kia Nurse is at 13.6 ppg and 83-of-185 on 3s for 45 percent. Sophomore Crystal Dangerfield stands at 9.6 ppg and 4.1 apg. … Notre Dame's two most recent Final Four appearances, in 2014 and 2015, each ended with title-game losses to the Huskies, by 79-58 and 63-53 counts, respectively. Leading the Irish are All-American junior Arike Ogunbowale (20.7 ppg, 61-of-161 on 3s for 38 percent), junior Jessica Shepard (16.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), junior Marina Mabrey (14.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.0 spg, 83-of-207 on 3s for 40 percent), sophomore Jackie Young (14.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.8 apg) and senior Kathryn Westbeld (7.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg).

QUOTING: “(Notre Dame's) a team that we're very familiar with each other. We've played each other a lot throughout the years. There's nothing we can do that's going to surprise them. There's nothing they're going to do that's going to surprise us. We've just played them so many times.” — Gabby Williams, UConn senior.