Notre Dame's Turner avoids buzz to stay focused on UConn

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — After what happened last April, Connecticut can be excused if it’s been pacing the floor for its next shot at Notre Dame, but it’s not like Brianna Turner wouldn’t mind hers at the Huskies, either.

“It’s been so long it’s hard to remember,” Turner said with a laugh Saturday of what it’s like to line up against UConn.

Turner was on the team when the Irish stunned No. 1 Connecticut 91-89 in overtime during last spring’s national semifinals on the way to winning the title — but she wasn’t on the court, missing all of the season while recovering from a knee injury.

Neither was she out there against the Huskies early in her 2014-15 freshman season, that game being among a handful she missed due to a shoulder injury.

Then the same exact thing happened during her sophomore season.

In fact, the only two times the fifth-year player has ever faced UConn were in the national title game as a freshman and in a regular-season matchup her junior season.

The Huskies won both, each by double digits, though not for lack of solid play by Turner. Over the two appearances, she has totaled 30 points (14-for-23 from field), 22 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Even with just those two face-offs against UConn, Turner knows this is like no other matchup in women’s college basketball.

“Personally, I try to stay off social media this weekend,” the All-American forward said of the buzz heading into Sunday’s 4 p.m. showdown that’ll send No. 1 Notre Dame (7-0) against No. 2 Connecticut (6-0).

Not that she doesn’t appreciate that buzz.

“I think it’s really exciting,” Turner said. “You want to play the best. To be the best, you want to play the best. UConn, obviously, is always a top program in the country. For the game of women’s basketball, all the hype that’s around the game and the people who are going to tune in, I think it’s great.”

Turner acknowledged that she expects the Huskies to possess a special brand of motivation after the Irish denied them a championship last season — “I can look at my freshman year, so I know the feeling exactly” — but also pointed out “they’re going to play hard the whole game” regardless of history, “so we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the same thing.”

“We’ve had lapses,” Turner said of ND’s play through its first seven outings this season, “so I think we’re really working to have an all-around game and putting the full 40 together with everybody working together.”

Irish coach Muffet McGraw was emphatic Saturday that the “full 40” will be needed at both ends, not just the offensive, where ND has averaged 99 points against the three top-15 teams it’s already faced this season.

“Our transition defense is not as good as it could be — I think that’s mostly effort,” McGraw said. “I think we could rebound a little bit better, and that’s mostly effort. I think our communication could be better, and that’s pretty easy to solve, so I think all of the problems we’re having defensively, we could fix ’em in a day.”

The coach called Connecticut “a great defensive team, much better than we are.”

The Huskies have stifled opposition shooters, allowing just 31 percent overall, 34 percent on 2-pointers, 26 percent on 3-pointers and 36 percent in net effectiveness.

Irish opponents are converting 38 percent overall, 43 percent on 2s, 30 percent on 3s and 43 percent in net effectiveness.

UConn’s got the advantage offensively as well, at a robust 61 percent in net effectiveness to ND’s 52 percent. The Huskies have been jacking up significantly more 3s (51-of-122 for 42 percent to 25-of-82 for 30 percent by the Irish).

Connecticut’s beating opponents by 33.7 points per game to ND’s 23.8, with each team’s closest win by 10.

The Huskies, though, have faced just one ranked club to Notre Dame’s three.

No matter who wins, neither will view itself as a non-title contender afterwards and each will benefit in the long run by virtue of what the other exposes.

Both have avenged regular-season losses to the other on multiple occasions in postseason.

“It’s not life and death right now,” McGraw said. “I think you’ve got to go into the game and play your game. I mean, you can’t be worried about the rankings and worried about anything else externally. You’ve just got to go out and enjoy the experience. It’s going to be a great day.”

If the Irish are at all aching to post a perfect season — something the program’s never done and something UConn’s done six times — they weren’t letting on Saturday.

Turner and teammate Arike Ogunbowale both said winning another national title is “more important,” with Turner slightly dodging a question about perfection by saying “every team in the country wants to go undefeated.”

Ogunbowale, who hit the shot with one second left that gave the Irish their win over the Huskies at the Final Four, was bracing Saturday for a similarly tight game Sunday.

“It’s just about grit,” Ogunbowale said. “It’s going to go down to the wire. We’re going to be exchanging points a lot. It’s going to be a game of runs, and who can handle the runs and who lets go. It’s just about coming together and playing as a team.”

Irish injuries

Freshman guard Katlyn Gilbert will be sidelined “probably at least a couple weeks,” according to McGraw after her problematic right shoulder “popped out” during ND’s win Thursday over Iowa.

Additionally, the coach said she was “not expecting anything” Sunday from freshman point guard Jordan Nixon, who has missed the last four games after suffering a concussion Nov. 17 at DePaul.

Selling out

Ironically — given that the Irish ultimately did win the national title — Notre Dame’s streak of seasons with at least one home sellout ended last winter at 10.

Sunday’s sold-out game will be ND’s first since Feb. 26, 2017, against Florida State.

The Irish have sold out 52 previous home games, the first a 92-76 win over UConn during the 2000-01 national title season.

Overall, ND is 43-9 in sellouts at Purcell, including 3-5 against the Huskies.

Notre Dame’s last home sellout win over Connecticut came in triple overtime in March 2013.

“I actually saw the three-overtime game,” Irish junior Jackie Young recalled Saturday. “I’ve been watching (ND-UConn games) for a long time. It’s fun to be actually playing against them now instead of watching them on TV.”

With Brianna Turner’s return to the lineup, Notre Dame women’s basketball will have a powerful inside duo as she joins Jessica Shepard.
Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) fights for a rebound with Iowa’s Makenzie Meyer (3) and Hannah Stewart (21) during last Thursday’s game in South Bend.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 2 Connecticut (6-0) vs. No. 1 Notre Dame (7-0) in Jimmy V Classic.

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TICKETS: Sold out.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: ND’s 91-89 win over UConn in last spring’s national semifinal snapped the Huskies’ streak of seven wins over the Irish. The teams have split their last 16 meetings, though UConn still leads the all-time series 36-12, each of the matchups coming between Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw. … While No. 1-rated, unbeaten Connecticut teams have been ousted in the national semis each of the last two years, the Huskies’ body of work over the last quarter-century is unparalleled in the history of women’s or men’s Division I basketball. It includes six perfect seasons, 11 national titles, 18 Final Fours, 23 Elite Eights and 25 Sweet Sixteens. … UConn leaders this season include Katie Lou Samuelson (20.0 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, 18-of-40 on 3-pointers) Napheesa Collier (18.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 59 percent from the field), Crystal Dangerfield (13.2 ppg, 5.3 assists, 14-of-29 on 3s), sophomore Megan Walker (11.5 ppg) and freshman Christyn Williams (10.8 ppg). Samuelson, Collier and Dangerfield are returning starters, while Walker and Williams were rated No. 1 nationally in their respective classes coming out of high school. … Pacing the Irish are Arike Ogunbowale (25.3 ppg, 1.9 spg), Jackie Young (17.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 5.3 apg), Jessica Shepard (17.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 59 percent from the field), Brianna Turner (14.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Marina Mabrey (13.5 ppg, 3.5 apg). … Young scored a career-high 32 points on 10-of-15 from the field and 10-of-11 at the line to go with 11 rebounds in last season’s Final Four win over UConn. … Ogunbowale has scored at least 20 points in all seven games this season, breaking Katryna Gaither’s six straight in 1996-97 for best in ND history. ...The Irish have gone 97-2 in their last 99 home games, both losses coming against Connecticut.

QUOTING: “It’s a game in early December that’s going to determine a little bit about where we are and how far we need to get to. It’s going to be a good barometer to see where we are with Marina just coming back. I feel like we’re still having some growing pains. It’s going to be a good test, an early test and it’s going to help us prepare for the ACC.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach.