UConn returning, Notre Dame rebuilding

Megan Walker slashes to the basket. Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics.
Megan Walker slashes to the basket. Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics.

The Connecticut – Notre Dame game Sunday was billed by some in the media as the meeting of two “rebuilding” teams. But Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was having none of it.

“Woo, Really?” he said after his team thrashed their arch rivals, 81-57, in a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament semifinal. “I should read more. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.”

Auriemma said he doubted Gampel Pavilion would have been sold out, as it was for the match up, if the Huskies were starting from the ground up.

“But if anybody threw that out there that we’re in a rebuilding mode, jeez. Wow. Rebuilding. Most people when they rebuild are like not fourth in the country, are they?” he said, referring to the team’s ranking. “Rebuilding? Maybe we’re not the fourth-best team in the country, but . . . . We beat the team that beat the team that beat Oregon. Whatever the hell that means. Who beat the National Team. Heh-heh.”

For nearly a decade, the UConn – Notre Dame rivalry has been the most intense in women’s basketball. Over the past nine years, the Irish have beaten the Huskies nine times. The rest of Division I has managed just eight wins over them during that span. UConn has been in 12 consecutive Final Fours and Notre Dame has been to five, which included knocking the Huskies out the last two seasons.

But in the first two quarters of this year’s chapter UConn looked like a top-tier team, as they dominated the Irish in every way and led 52-25 going into the break.

The Huskies graduated Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, who were drafted into the WNBA, and they are riding with injuries and a thin bench. But they are working their way back to excellence, not rebuilding.

Yet, it could be argued that, after decades of dominance, the burden of being UConn is that not being No. 1 and blowing out every opponent means the team is flawed. Were those who branded the Huskies as “rebuilding” even looking at the team on the court?

They have an experienced senior point guard, probably among the top 10 in the country, in Crystal Dangerfield. They have two other returning starters – both former high school players of the year – in Megan Walker and Christyn Williams.

Walker has been stellar for Auriemma. After scoring 29 points against Seton Hall and 26 points against the Irish this week, the 6-1 junior ranks eighth in the country with a 22.1-point average. She also averages 8.9 rebounds.

“Megan’s playing like she’s a first team All-American player,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know anybody in the country that’s playing better.”

“What I like most about her was the way she rebounded today. You gotta understand, Megan had two offensive rebounds our first six games. Total. She had four today. What’s that tell you? There’s a lot left in her tank, of what she can do. She’s just beginning to scratch the surface. And I’m really proud of her.”

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6-5 sophomore, is third in the nation with 33 blocks, and also averages 11.6 points and 9.4 boards per contest. She had 16 points and 10 rebounds, four offensive, against Notre Dame.

“Liv’s an enigma you know,” Auriemma said. “I’m always really on her about, ‘Liv, people would kill to be you in this game. You’d get 50 if you wanted to. There’s not a person in this building that can guard you.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, you know, whatever.’ And I’m dying to see her get that killer mentality because she’s just so skilled. She can do so many things out on the court. . . . For someone I bitch and moan at all the time, she’s having a hell of a year.”

Williams is an efficient and steady contributor, but has yet to show a sophomore surge. But even if not fully up to the potential she showed at times last season (particularly against Notre Dame), she still averages 16.4 points and shoots over 50 percent.

Undeniably, UConn has looked vulnerable at times, despite the returning talent. They are often inconsistent, and the second half against the Irish was not a thing of beauty.  The search for a fifth reliable starter continues.

Yet the Huskies are undefeated, and have, in fact, won every contest by double digits. And their win over the Irish jumped them to No. 2 in today’s AP top 25 poll.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is a team with significant reconstruction ahead. The Irish graduated their entire starting five into the WNBA, and entered the game against UConn with five losses – more than any full season since 2010-11 after having dropped out of the top 25 poll two weeks ago for the first time since 2007.

Active players on the roster for this contest played a combined 314 minutes for Notre Dame last season. The lineup includes four walk-ons (three this year), two freshmen, and two graduate transfers. No one has demonstrated a reliable three-point shot, and the team has been beaten on the boards by an average of six. The Huskies out-rebounded their opponents, 48-32, and scored 21 second-chance points..

The Irish have also had their share of injury loss. Mikaela Vaughn, a 6-3 junior who was to be their leading post presence, is out with an ACL sprain. Sophomore Abby Prohaska, who averaged 14.4 minutes and started three games last season, is out indefinitely with bilateral pulmonary embolism. Neither has a scheduled return date.

To make things worse, Sam Brunelle, a 6-2 freshman averaging 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds over 10 games, left the UConn game with an unspecified leg “injury” and played just 17 seconds in the second half. In her absence, the only Notre Dame player over 5-10 is 6-4 sophomore Danielle Cosgrove, who managed just three points and three boards against the Huskies.

Coach Muffett McGraw was uncharacteristically down-beat about her team’s prospects. “Obviously we need some help,” she said. “We’ll see what that means.”

“I mean, I think we can get better. I think we can get a lot better. We just have to figure out how we’re going to score. We’re not a great defensive team. We knew going into the season that we weren’t going to score a lot, so we’ve worked a lot on our defense. And we haven’t been able to play great defense. And we’re limited a little bit because of our numbers, so we are playing a lot of zone. I think we can be a lot better?”

There is some room for optimism, but not a lot. Notre Dame actually has four players scoring in double figures, between 14.9 and 13.5 points per game each, but none at a good percentage.

Anaya Peoples, a 5-10 freshman guard, led the Irish against UConn with 17 points and 11 rebounds, though nine and eight of those came in the fourth quarter, when little was at stake. Katlyn Gilbert, a 5-10 sophomore, and Marta Sniezek, a 5-8 grad student who played at Stanford, also scored in double digits for Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution to the team’s lack of a point guard, or to their inability to protect the ball. The Irish lost to Florida Gulf Coast (the best RPI 15 team you’ve never thought about) in large part because they gave up 20 points off 25 turnovers. UConn scored 20 points off 16 Irish turnovers.

There is also no solution to the lack of height, especially skilled height, until and unless Brunelle and Vaughn return.

“We hoped to be good in January,” McGraw said, somewhat wistfully. “The biggest problem is the schedule. We really overscheduled. You know we like to play good teams, and this team wasn’t really ready for our schedule. So we’ve put them in a really bad situation. And it’s not going to get any easier.”

It is not clear that the team will be enough better in January, or in February, to be competitive in the ACC. There is a real possibility that Notre Dame will not make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in decades.