WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Turner leads stunning finish as Notre Dame clips Connecticut in national semifinal

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. — Brianna Turner’s so relaxed these days, it seems nothing alarms her — other than maybe how relaxed she is.

During a frenzied finish in Notre Dame’s 81-76 national semifinal win over Connecticut on Friday night at Amalie Arena, the lone Irish starter who didn’t play for last year’s champions was perhaps the most pivotal within a pivotal bunch, the most unflinching in a group of non-flinchers.

“It’s so weird how calm I felt out there,” Turner marveled between sips of chocolate milk about her smooth execution in the heat of battle as the rallying Irish moved to within one victory of their first-ever back-to-back women’s basketball titles.

“I just had such a calm state of mind,” repeated the grad student, who sat out all of last season while rehabbing a knee injury. “There were so many times last year I felt so anxious — and I wasn’t playing. Sitting out last year, I had to learn a lot about patience. I was really patient out there tonight.”

Patient and calm when the Irish were down 64-55 with 7:30 to go.

Patient and calm as Notre Dame outscored the Huskies 26-9 over the next 7:24 to put the wraps on their win at 81-73 with six ticks left.

Patient and calm while delivering five points, five rebounds, two assists and an epic block that also happened to be a record-setter just within the closing 6:54.

“I know she’s super excited to be on the court,” senior All-American Arike Ogunbowale said of Turner after pouring in 21 of her game-high 23 points in the second half, “and we’re blessed to have her on the court. We wouldn’t win this game without Bri. Her defensive stops, her scoring, everything, we wouldn’t be here without her.”

“She really single-handedly kept us in the game in the first half,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She had so many key blocked shots.”

Turner contributed 15 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks in all, the last block coming at 49 seconds to go against UConn All-American Napheesa Collier with ND up 76-73.

That swat lifted Turner past of Hall of Famer Ruth Riley for No. 1 in the program record book.

“That it came in a win against a phenomenal team, that’s what makes it sweet,” Turner said.

She grabbed the rebound after that block, too, setting the stage for Ogunbowale to convert a pair of free throws to make the count 78-73 at 39.5 seconds to go.

Turner then added three freebies over the next 33 seconds to ice the game.

“Even on free throws, I felt so good, so calm,” said Turner, a career 63 percent shooter at the line who made 7-of-8 on the night and passed 2,000 points in her career.

No. 3 Notre Dame (35-3) meets top-ranked Baylor (36-1) in Sunday’s 6 p.m. title game.

It will be a rematch of the 2012 championship that the Bears won, 80-61. On a weekend that McGraw lectured listeners about the shortage of female coaches being hired, it will be the first matchup of head coaching women in the final since she and Kim Mulkey also squared off seven years ago.

“That was an amazing second half,” McGraw said of ND scoring 52 points after trailing 30-29 at the break. “First half, I thought we really struggled to score. The second half, really just caught fire.”

“It’s two halves and that’s the beauty of basketball,” Ogunbowale said. “Whatever happened that first 20 minutes, we can get rid of it. We had a whole other 20 minutes to go.”

Jessica Shepard had 20 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and played every second of the 40 minutes for the Irish.

Fellow senior Marina Mabrey added 12 points and dished an NCAA Tournament semifinal record 12 assists that also marked a career high.

Mabrey, who’d been in a tourney-long shooting slump, shook it some in the second half with 3-of-6 marksmanship that included 2-of-3 outside the arc.

“People have been talking about her slump, but we’ve never lost faith in Marina,” Turner said. “I’ll never hesitate to throw her the ball.”

Powered by Turner and Shepard, Notre Dame outrebounded UConn 54-37, the most decidedly the No. 2 Huskies (35-3) have been handled on the boards this season.

ND, which avenged an 89-71 December home loss, ruled the offensive glass 22-11, leading to a 22-9 advantage in second-chance points.

“They were better than us when the season started and they were better than us tonight,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the Irish. “They had more good players play better and contribute more than we did. That’s just the way the world is. They deserved to win.”

With each side sinking clutch basket after clutch basket, there were seven lead changes and two ties from the 4:25 mark to the 1:29 mark of the closing quarter.

That’s when Notre Dame went up for good — the 26th lead change of the late-night game — on a 16-footer by Shepard.

“I think for us as players, that was definitely the feeling,” Shepard said of her team never appearing to panic. “We had Coach a little bit stressed, (but) I think we knew that as long as we kept our composure, we just needed to get stops and needed to get good offensive shots.”

For the Huskies, senior All-American Katie Lou Samuelson scored all of her team-high 20 points in the second half.

Freshman Christyn Williams added 19 points. Collier, who joined Samuelson in playing every second for UConn, finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

Though they trail the Huskies 37-13 in the all-time series, the Irish improved to a glistening 5-1 against the “gold standard” of women’s basketball in national semifinals.

They also beat the Huskies for the ninth time in the last 11 years overall. All other teams have a combined eight wins against UConn over that stretch.

UCONN (35-3): Collier 7-14 0-0 15, Walker 6-12 0-0 14, Dangerfield 2-11 0-0 4, Samuelson 7-17 3-3 20, Williams 7-15 3-4 19, Nelson-Ododa 2-4 0-2 4, Totals 31-73 6-9 76.

NOTRE DAME (35-3): Shepard 10-19 0-0 20, Turner 4-9 7-8 15, Mabrey 4-14 1-2 12, Ogunbowale 7-18 6-6 23, Young 5-15 0-0 11, Patterson 0-0 0-0 0, Vaughn 0-2 0-0 0, Prohaska 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 30-77 14-16 81.

UConn;16;14;24;22;—;76

Notre Dame;12;17;23;29;—;81

3-Point Goals—UConn 8-28 (Collier 1-2, Walker 2-6, Dangerfield 0-6, Samuelson 3-10, Williams 2-4), Notre Dame 7-20 (Mabrey 3-10, Ogunbowale 3-8, Young 1-2). Assists—UConn 20 (Dangerfield 9), Notre Dame 24 (Mabrey 12). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—UConn 37 (Collier 13), Notre Dame 54 (Turner 15). Total Fouls—UConn 14, Notre Dame 12. Technical Fouls—None.A—20,062.

Notre Dame's Brianna Turner (11) goes up for a shot over Connecticut's Megan Walker during the Notre Dame-Connecticut NCAA Final Four game on Friday, April 5, 2019, inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.