WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Notre Dame vs. UConn: Anticipation builds for a Final Four clash of bitter rivals

Anthony Anderson | Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

TAMPA, Fla.

Notre Dame, the school with the golden dome, and Connecticut, the program that calls itself the women’s basketball “gold standard,” face off in their golden matchup Friday at Amalie Arena.

The 50th game in the often bitter Irish-Huskie series will be one in which Notre Dame tries to move to within one step of back-to-back national titles, and Connecticut tries to exorcise the ghosts of back-to-back heartbreak.

Mostly, though, this showdown will be about the moment at hand.

“I don’t think the other 49 times we played them really has any significance in tomorrow’s game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Thursday on the eve of trying to improve to 38-12 against Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “It’s just that in the last number of years, every time we’ve played them, it’s been a lot at stake,” Auriemma said of why history is always explored as part of the equation. “Even a stupid regular-season game, like in December, it’s (No.) 1 vs. (No.) 2.”

It was exactly that on Dec. 2 when then-No. 2 Connecticut spanked the then-No. 1 Irish, 89-71, easily ND’s worst loss of the season.

“Just because we beat them in December doesn’t have anything to do with tomorrow night,” Auriemma said, pointing out that his Huskies also lost to Louisville during the regular season, then beat the Cardinals in last weekend’s regional final.

“Notre Dame is a lot better today, than they were in December, no doubt in my mind,” Auriemma said. “I mean, I think they’re the best team in the country. I don’t think anybody else is even close. Baylor, but I don’t think anybody else can match Notre Dame when they’re playing their ‘A’ game. They just overwhelm you, man, at every position.”

As it so happens, Friday’s Final Four matchup at Amalie Arena will be the first time in the last 11 meetings that neither team holds the No. 1 ranking — UConn (35-2) is No. 2 and the Irish (34-3) are No. 3 in both major polls — and that neither team enters unbeaten.

The Huskies aren’t minding that tidbit at all.

They’ve brought undefeated, No. 1-rated teams to the last two Final Fours — only to lose each time in the semifinals on overtime buzzer-beating shots, first by Mississippi State’s Morgan William, then a year ago by Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale.

“As much as it sucks to lose games during the year,” UConn All-American senior forward Napheesa Collier said of falling this season to now-No. 1 Baylor and to Louisville, “it does give you that experience. We’ve had more close games this year than we have in all my years combined.”

Auriemma promised that this year’s group, unlike his last two, won’t play in fear.

“For the first time, I can honestly say, in a long time, I was coaching a Connecticut team that wasn’t burdened by being afraid to lose, and was playing to win,” Auriemma said of his team’s two single-digit victories during last week’s regional.

The coach called his 2018 and 2017 unbeaten clubs “more afraid to lose the national championship than wanting to win the national championship.”

“We might get beat tomorrow night, but we’re not going to lose,” Auriemma said. “They’re going to have to beat our (butts). We’re not going to lose because we’re afraid.”

For all its previous rich history, it’s this UConn squad that boasts the highest-scoring pair of teammates in program history in Collier and fellow senior Katie Lou Samuelson, a national player of the year contender before dealing with back issues this season.

Samuelson appeared to regain her form in the win over Louisville.

“It’s hard to say what’s the most important thing when you look at UConn,” McGraw assessed Thursday of the Huskies. “(You) say, ‘Well, we can’t let Samuelson go off for 29, we can’t let Napheesa own the backboard and do what she wants. (Crystal) Dangerfield is so critical to their team.

“You don’t want to let one of the other two get loose,” McGraw added of freshmen starters Megan Walker and Christyn Williams, the latter a player who riddled the Irish with 28 points and 11-of-16 field-goal shooting in December. “Really, there’s so many critical points.”

Irish defensive star Brianna Turner, who is in the Final Four for the first time since 2015 after missing all of last season with a knee injury, said the Huskies will boast offensive savvy.

“They definitely have more of a finesse style of play than back to the (basket),” Turner said. “They don’t really have a true back to the basket style of player. There’s going to be a lot of up and unders, a lot of shot fakes. … We will have to be able to defend that and (3-pointers).”

While Connecticut has won 37 of those previous 49 meetings, national semifinals are where ND has been at its absolute best when facing the Huskies.

The Irish are 4-1 against UConn in this particular round, winning in 2001, 2011, 2012 and 2018. ND fell in 2013.

Connecticut, meanwhile, took national championship games over the Irish in 2014 and 2015.

The two teams are meeting at the Final Four for the seventh time in the last nine years.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale heads down court during a Final Four practice session Thursday in Tampa, Fla.
Notre Dame practices for the Final Four on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (34-3) vs. No. 2 Connecticut (35-2) in NCAA Tournament national semifinal.

WHERE: Amalie Arena (20,500), Tampa, Fla.

WHEN: Friday, 9:30 p.m., following No. 1 Baylor (35-1) vs. No. 7 Oregon (33-4) in 7 p.m. semifinal.

TV: ESPN2.

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

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Irish coach Muffet McGraw on Thursday deemed her team “at 100 percent strength — as much as you can be at this time of the year.” She added that Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young are both “fine.” Young suffered a cut finger in the regional final against Stanford, while Mabrey’s been playing through a knee injury she suffered a few days prior to the NCAA Tourney. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (21.5 ppg, 3.9 apg), Jessica Shepard (16.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 60 percent on FGs), Young (15.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 5.0 apg), Brianna Turner (14.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.8 bpg, 64 percent on FGs) and Mabrey (12.5 ppg, 73-of-178 on 3s for 41 percent). … Turner needs 10 points for 2,000 in her career and four blocks to tie Ruth Riley’ program record of 370. … UConn leaders are Napheesa Collier (21.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 61 percent on FGs), Katie Lou Samuelson (18.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 86-of-227 on 3s for 38 percent), Crystal Dangerfield (13.7 ppg, 5.8 apg), Megan Walker (12.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Christyn Williams (11.5 ppg). … The Huskies, who were not a No. 1 NCAA Tourney regional seed for the first time since 2006, are appearing in their record 12th straight Final Four and seeking their record 12th straight national title overall.

QUOTING: “We had a lot of adversity this year. We lost two games. I mean, just saying those words makes you think, ‘What an idiot. Who ever would say we faced a lot of adversity this year and lost two games’? Some people lose two in a weekend. Yet, at the same time, our players have already experienced something different than they’ve experienced the (last) couple years.”

— Geno Auriemma, Connecticut coach.