After handily beating Maryland Sunday night, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was already nauseous thinking about his team’s NCAA title game matchup against Notre Dame.
And why wouldn’t he feel a little queasy? Notre Dame is the one program that has consistently gone toe-to-toe with the Huskies throughout the past five years. Since 2011, the series has been dead even at 7-7.
No other coach — and program — has put up more of a fight against the dominant Huskies than Muffet McGraw’s Irish. McGraw’s teams have upended Auriemma’s squads 11 times since the 2000-2001 season. The next coach on that list is Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer, with just five wins against the perpetual favorites during that time.
So, if anyone has a chance to dethrone the two-time defending NCAA champions, it is the Irish.
“They’re a lot like us,” Auriemma said. “And I think that’s why they have had success against us. That they have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and as a program. So we give them problems like other teams in the country don’t and they give us problems like other teams in the country don’t.”
While the Irish didn’t fair too well against the Huskies in December’s regular season meeting –losing 76-58 on Dec. 6 — they definitely weren’t the team UConn will see Tuesday night. Not only were the Irish still establishing their roles in the early matchup, they were without freshman forward Brianna Turner, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury for a few games.
Without Turner ‑‑ the ACC Freshman of the Year — Notre Dame turned in its worst shooting performance of the season, posting an uncharacteristically low 31.4 field goal percentage, and got out-rebounded 52-34. Turner also leads the Irish with 7.8 rebounds per game and is the NCAA leader in the field goal percentage at a 64.8 clip.
|DI WOMEN’S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP|
|Farnum-Patronis/Maloof: UConn vs. ND: Why They’ll Win|
|Maloof: Tuck returns from injury to star for UConn|
|Farnum-Patronis: Reimer serves as mentor for Irish|
|Maloof: UConn, Auriemma remain the sport’s standard|
|Farnum-Patronis: Notre Dame relishes role as underdog|
|Maloof: Secret weapon Tuck leads UConn rout of Terps|
|Farnum-Patronis: Mincy struggles in loss to UConn|
|Maloof: ND’s Loyd comes up big in crunchtime|
|Farnum-Patronis: Gamecocks’ rally comes up just short|
|Farnum-Patronis: Terps’ guard play key vs. UConn|
|Maloof: UConn’s standards are unique to rest of field|
|Maloof: Loyd can dominate or facilitate for Notre Dame|
|Farnum-Patronis: S.C.’s Staley returns to Final Four|
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With Turner on the court, the Irish are bound to be closer to their season field goal percentage (.496) — which ranks second in the nation to UConn. More importantly, her defensive play will be crucial against UConn star forwards Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck.
“I think she makes a difference in our team at the defensive end, with her rebounding, her presence of shot blocking and the way she can run the floor,” McGraw said. “I think that she adds a lot to our team. I think that we are a much better team with her on the floor.”
But the main reason Notre Dame have the edge in the 44th meeting of the series between the two rivals is simple. The Irish don’t shudder at the thought of playing UConn.
“It doesn’t make the game easier, but the familiarity, I think, helps us in a lot of ways,” McGraw said. “I don’t think we have the intimidation a lot of teams face when they play UConn.”
Notre Dame has handed the Huskies their only two losses in NCAA Tournament play in the past seven years (semifinals in 2011, 2012). And they’ll do it again in 2015.
— Amy Farnum-Patronis, NCAA.com
♦ ♦ ♦
Connecticut will win the 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s basketball title because of an overwhelming amount history, tradition and statistical evidence that backs up the Huskies’ sure sense of place.
Title time is UConn time, proved yet again in Sunday’s huge 81-58 win in the Women’s Final Four against No. 4 Maryland, a team whose back court and bench depth was supposed to be UConn’s undoing.
Only six Huskies logged more than 18 minutes. They won by 23 points.
The best player in the country plays for UConn. That’s All-Everything junior forward Breanna Stewart, last season’s consensus player of the year who appears headed for the same honors sweep this year. Yes, it’s debatable. Sports always are. But you try defending a 6-foot-4 stalwart who’s athletic in the post, averages 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds and can swish a sweet three.
“Stewie,” as head coach Geno Auriemma calls her, didn’t arrive that way. A gifted player since childhood, she endured the physicality shock and grind of a college game where (nearly) everyone could do what she did. And getting few breaks? All the time? The worst.
“That freshman year, that kid got knocked senseless,” Auriemma said of the 2012-13 season. “And you know what? Show you how tough she is, when March came around that year, she just took over the tournament, after doing nothing all of January and February. That’s when I realized that this kid’s got something that very few kids have.
“I still don’t really get on her as much as I did like some other players. But when it’s a big game and big plays and big moments, man, I’ve had some great ones, but this kid’s something else. She’s something else.”
UConn’s offense rocks. See above for the Stewart factor. And this: UConn has been outscored in only 18 of its previous 304 halves and all five starters average in double figures. Redshirt sophomore forward Morgan Tuck (14.5 points per game) ranks fourth nationally in field-goal percentage (60.6).
Senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (14.9 points per game) leads the country in three-point field goal percentage (49.4).
She set a new NCAA record with her 393rd three-pointer during UConn’s regional final victory over Dayton. Junior guard Moriah Jefferson (12.4 points per game) was the America Athletic Conference’s Most Improved Player.
Freshman guard Kia Nurse (10.3 points per game) was the AAC’s Rookie of the Year.
Plus, UConn goes on deadly scoring runs. Pull close, jump ahead, then listen for that background roar. It’s an offensive freight train fueled by smart guard play and three forwards in Stewart, Tuck and Mosqueda-Lewis who can stand their ground or drift outside.
Finally, Auriemma is 9-0 in NCAA title games.
You expected something different?
— Denise Maloof, NCAA.com