UConn – Notre Dame rivalry guarantees a close, unpredictable semifinal

Muffet McGraw speaks to the crowd after the Irish won the Spokane regional. Photo by James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Muffet McGraw speaks to the crowd after the Irish won the Spokane regional. Photo by James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus – This year’s Final Four is the most competitive ever, with a real possibility that any of the four teams could win it all.

Of course, that means undefeated UConn could win their 12th title on Sunday. But it is just as clear that they could lose on Friday to a tough Notre Dame team that has overcome key injuries to win all but three games all year.

Wait, wasn’t one of those losses to UConn? Yes, it was, but that game is meaningless to the outcome, although the players have not forgotten it.

“We have nothing to lose,” Notre Dame senior Marina Mabrey said. “All the pressure is on them. We just need to go out and play our game.”

“Playing them before, . . . [w]e gave that one away. We just had a slight mental lapse and you can’t have a mental lapse against them. It hurt when it happened. But it’s over now and we had to move on.”

Why does the December game not matter on the court? First, it was a nine-point home win for the Huskies in December, when the Irish were still figuring out how to compensate for three players lost to injury. What’s more, UConn was down 11 points in the fourth quarter before making a furious comeback.

Second, neither team bears much similarity to the team that played early that month. The Irish soon afterwards lost point guard Lili Thompson to injury, but Mabrey stepped into a position she had never played, and has run the offense masterfully, protecting the ball and still scoring profusely. Notre Dame has jelled successfully, and may be a better team than they would have with Thompson at point. UConn’s all-around catalyst Gabby Williams had a migraine during that contest, and was ineffective and on the bench for much of the game.

Third, this is a true rivalry, and no two coaches know each other better than Muffet McGraw and Geno Auriemma. The Irish have long been the only perennial challenger to the Huskies. They have bested them three of four times they have met in the national semifinal, in 2001, when they went on to win their only title, in 2011, and in 2012 (overtime) the Huskies won the 2013 semifinal meeting.

“I think UConn and Notre Dame has one of the biggest rivalries in women’s basketball and I think it just comes down to the coaches history and just the programs history,” Notre Dame’s Jess Shepard said. “It says a lot about the traditions that both schools have. Just to have the opportunity to play in that rivalry means a lot and I think we learned a lot from our first go around with them.”

The Huskies have won all 11 of their national final games, including two over Notre Dame, in 2014 and 2015. UConn set a record this year by reaching its eleventh straight Final Four, but the Irish have played in six of the last eight. Notre Dame is the only team to come even close to a streak of victories over the Huskies, winning seven of eight regular meetings from 2010 through 2013.

Of course, it is also true that UConn is 30-11 against Notre Dame all time, and has won the last seven, played over five years, including the last three meetings in the Final Four. And the Huskies lead the nation in shooting percentage (.534) and assist-turnover ratio (1.88). They also lead all Final Four teams in three-point percentage (.401). The Irish are no slouches in any of those categories, however, at .504, 1.39, and .373, respectively.

When Williams was healthy in the teams’ 2016 game, she had 19 points, 12 rebounds, and five steals. This tournament, she has averaged 15.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. She was last year’s defensive player of the year. This season, that award went to teammate Kia Nurse. That’s quite a defensive combo.

Shepard transferred to Notre Dame from Nebraska this season, and received a waiver of the one year ineligibility rule. She has averaged 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds this season, and has been outstanding in the postseason.

A key matchup will be the two big posts for the Irish (Shepard at 6-4 and Kathryn Westbeld at 6-2) against Williams and the two much less physical but quicker UConn posts (Napheesa Collier at 6-2 and Azura Stevens at 6-6).

For pure toughness, the edge here goes to the Notre Dame. Westbeld has been in a walking boot for a week, and is not fully healed from a broken ankle. Yet she took the boot off and proceeded to notch 20 points and seven boards in the Elite 8 against Oregon. Then she put it back on. Shepard is immovable and skilled if she can get set on the low block, and it is unclear that anyone on UConn can push her away from her favorite spots.

Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies celebrate after winning the Albany regional. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Athletics.
Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies celebrate after winning the Albany regional. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Athletics.

The Husky posts counter with speed that the Irish can’t match. Collier finds lanes to the hoop where none seem to exist, Stevens is  taller than everyone and features a deft scoring ability around the basket. Williams, a great defender and the UConn assist leader, has been accurate with zone-busting 14-footer in the tournament.

On the perimeter, this game features two great three-point shooting teams, though the Huskies average 3.2 more threes per game than Notre Dame, and have three shooters (Katie Lou Samuelson –.474, Crystal Dangerfield — .462, and Nurse — .449) to the Irish’s two (Mabrey — .401, and Arike Ogunbowale — .379). Who will be hot on Friday? That could make all the difference.

Agility, passing and shooting threes are especially important for opponents of Notre Dame, which uses a 2-3 zone most of the time. Expect them to pack the paint initially, in hopes that UConn will not have a great outside shooting night. Of course, the Huskies hit 9-10 in the first half in Monday’s drubbing of South Carolina.

Both teams spread the floor skillfully on offense, and both have great passing that frees up scorers at every position. The Irish’s Ogunbowale and Jackie Young are quick and aggressive driving to the basket, and Ogunbowale’s pull-up jumper is unguardable.

Then again, so is Dangerfield’s pull-up. Her aggressive scoring in the tournament has made UConn even harder to defend. Can the Huskies break the zone, and can they control the drives of the Notre Dame guards without fouling?

Finally, this story has gotten this far without mentioning Samuelson, UConn’s only first-team All-American this season. Her height, shooting ability, guard skills and quickness pose difficult matchups for any team. Even though the Irish features tall guards, none can expect to stop Samuelson one-on-one.

Can Notre Dame somehow neutralize Williams’ all-around game, limiting her passes and stopping her from finding her way inside? Do they have an answer for Samuelson? On the other side, can UConn deny penetration from sophomore Jackie Young, and the all-court scoring ability of Ogunbowale?

These are the questions that, when answered on the court, will determine the outcome. What we can be sure of is that the teams will attack each other because of the respect they share, and the history they have.

“They are a really great team,” Stevens said. “They have been able to do incredible things this season with all of their injuries and stuff.”

“I think we’re are looking forward to a battle. We know it’s going to be a tough game. We know them very well and they know us very well, so it’s going to be one of those games where you kind of have to grind it out.”

It is exciting that this game approaches with more questions than answers. I certainly do not have any of the latter.

If UConn plays like they did against South Carolina, they will win. But that was a remarkable performance, even for UConn. Notre Dame has been pressed much harder in the tournament, coming back from deficits in three contests against lesser teams. They simply find a way to win.

This one is worth watching from tip to buzzer, and the outcome is likely to be in doubt that entire time. UConn should win the game. But these teams are so evenly matched in style, grit, and talent, that the outcome is far from predictable. The coaches know it, and they enjoy it. Both expected to be here way back in December.

“[T]hey’re not going away,” Auriemma said. “They’ve been around for a long time. We’re not going away.”

“She 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 you in March, it’s going to be in the Final Four. So that’s cool.”

It is very cool for women’s basketball fans.