Noie: Notre Dame loses poise, game to confident Connecticut

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Age and experience and swagger from a team that oozes all of it were supposed to help the Notre Dame women’s basketball team navigate the rough waters sure to surface this season.

But when your core players who carry all that age and experience and swagger are left only with blank stares and bad body language in the second half, something has really gone wrong.

Something did Sunday at a sold-out Purcell Pavilion.

With almost everything on it side — that age, that experience, that swagger and a homecourt advantage to boot — No. 1 Notre Dame looked so unsure against the one opponent where that can never happen.

But it happened. It allowed No. 2 Connecticut to take Sunday’s game when it was there for the taking. Run away with it. Hide. It left Notre Dame searching and wondering after its first loss, 89-71, in front of a revved-up crowd, a lot of whom left early and left disappointed after watching a 28-game home win streak fizzle.

They weren’t the only ones dazed and confused. Those blank stares and body language that dominated in the second half carried over to the post-game press conference. While Muffet McGraw spoke, about a lot of what the Irish didn’t do well, senior guard Arike Ogunbowale and junior guard Jackie Young sat and stared holes in the floor.

Their eight-minute presser felt like 28. That was the last place the players wanted to be, except for maybe the film room come Monday.

“We,” said Young, “have a lot of things we have to fix.”

Watching this one again’s not going to be pretty. Losing to Connecticut and losing to coach Geno Auriemma never is easy. Not for this program. Not on that floor. Maybe it would have been acceptable had the Irish run up and down the floor and scored close to their average of 91.1 points. Maybe if they had gotten just a few stops. Maybe if they would have answered some of the Huskies’ toughness with some of their own.

But with the game seemingly there for the taking, it was the other guys, the ones in the road black uniforms, who grabbed it.

What bothered McGraw the most? Hard to say. Everything was equally offensive. Transition defense was a mess. So was the halfcourt defense. Offensive execution? Not much of it. The Irish also seemingly forget about finding Brianna Turner down low. McGraw liked the Irish height advantage in the post, then watched Turner take only seven shots. Why? Hard to shoot the ball when you don’t get the ball. Not enough discipline on offense to get the ball where it needed to go.

To top it off, the Irish lost their poise, which may have stung the most. They got caught up in calls — those that were made, those that weren’t. Ogunbowale tumbled into a verbal back-and-forth with Auriemma. That led to a technical foul on the Irish guard and two free throws for the Huskies.

The Irish frustration just festered. A veteran core that won it all last year looked like an inexperienced, unsure outfit against a younger Connecticut team.

“That was unexpected,” McGraw said. “I was really disappointed to see the veterans that we have not rise to the occasion. We’re a better team than we showed.”

What most bothered McGraw?

“All of it,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

After Notre Dame got within two points with 4:18 left in the third, it wilted. It trailed by six heading into the fourth quarter, then 19 during it. That’s the most surprising part of Sunday’s outcome. Not that Connecticut won. Connecticut wins a lot. Sunday was regular season win No. 122 in a row. This one really wasn’t that close. Notre Dame, the home team, led for all of 63 seconds. The rest of the way was one big scramble. To nowhere. For nothing.

About an hour after the final horn, the nets on both rims remained intact. There was no confetti still tumbling from the ceiling. No celebrations spilling down the back arena hallways. The Huskies simply packed up and headed home. This was just another game in early December. One that might mean nothing in April.

Both teams remain among the nation’s select few elite. Both should find themselves in Florida the weekend of April 5 and another Final Four. They may/should meet again.

Until then, there’s still a long way to go. For both teams. That was expected of Connecticut, maybe not so much from Notre Dame. How? Why? Those are questions that will have answers in the coming days and weeks and months for Notre Dame.

Auriemma is gold quote after gold quote after a win. He never met a notepad he couldn’t fill. Sunday was no exception. But one sentence may have said it best. Not about his team. About Notre Dame.

“Just because you have everybody back, doesn’t mean you have the same team back,” Auriemma said. “Things change.”

Sure looked Sunday like they have.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) reacts to a call during Sunday’s game against UConn at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.