ND Women’s Basketball
No. 2 Irish face No. 1 Huskies in the NCAA finals
Greg Hadley | Tuesday, April 8, 2014
No. 1-seeded Connecticut and No. 2-seeded Notre Dame, two of college basketball’s fiercest rivals, will play for the national championship tonight in Nashville, Tenn.Fans across the country hoped for the matchup ¾ the first ever between unbeaten teams in either the men’s or women’s Division I national championship. President Barack Obama, along with dozens of pundits, predicted it. And now that it is finally here, both squads are prepared to renew their rivalry in the biggest game of the year.
“I think it was kind of inevitable, wasn’t it?” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “You guys [the media] probably had that one on your calendars probably by Feb. 1. I think the whole country was so distracted with that [matchup] and enamored with that matchup that it’s kind of nice to be in that moment. … It’s great to have the two best teams in the country playing each other for a national championship.”
The Irish (37-0, 16-0 ACC) have a long history with the Huskies (39-0, 18-0 AAC) that dates back two decades but has especially heated up in recent years, culminating last season when the two teams played four times. The Irish took the first three games ¾ all of which came down to the final minute ¾ including the Big East tournament championship. But the Huskies got the win when it mattered most: in the Final Four.
After winning the national championship, the Huskies entered the current season as the heavy favorites to add a ninth national championship to coach Geno Auriemma’s resume, which would push him past Tennessee legend Pat Summitt for the most NCAA titles in women’s basketball history.
“What I think is more significant [is] for [senior guard] Bria Hartley and [senior center] Stefanie Dolson to win a national championship their senior year,” Auriemma said. “That’s pretty significant, because they only get ‘x’ amount of chances to do it.”
Connecticut returns three starters from last year’s championship team, including the 2013 Final Four Most Outstanding Player and 2014 AP Player of the Year: sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, who averages 19.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.
“I don’t know if you can stop her,” McGraw said. “I don’t think you can. I think she’s a great player. … She can score in so many different ways.”
The Irish, on the other hand, entered the season ranked No. 7 in the nation without graduated star guard Skylar Diggins before they ran the table in the ACC, went undefeated in the regular season for the first time in program history and advanced to their fourth straight Final Four.
In each of the past three years, the Irish have played Connecticut in the semifinals, winning in 2011 and 2012 before dropping last year’s game. Notre Dame lost to Texas A&M in the championship three seasons ago before falling to Baylor the following year. The Irish are seeking their second title in program history after cutting the nets in 2001.
Notre Dame will play tonight without senior forward Natalie Achonwa, who tore her ACL in the Elite Eight against Baylor. But in their Final Four matchup Sunday against No. 4-seed Maryland, Achonwa’s absence hardly slowed the Irish. Notre Dame ended the night with a 50-21 edge in rebounding, despite Maryland’s plus-10.4 rebounding margin average on the season. The Irish collected 19 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points in the 87-61 victory.
Connecticut, playing second-seeded Stanford in the semifinals Sunday night, had more trouble on the boards, edging the Cardinal, 35-33. Without Achonwa, however, the Huskies have a significant size advantage in the post in Stewart, Dolson and junior center Kiah Stokes.
“I mean, it’s definitely been a challenge [without Achonwa],” said Irish freshman forward Taya Reimer, who started in Achonwa’s place against the Terrapins. “She’s been our leader all year and obviously one of our best players in general and a great presence for us inside. But we’re going to work as hard as we can [and] be physical down low. And we did a pretty good job against Maryland.”
“They’re more than just one player,” Auriemma said when asked if Connecticut would try to exploit the post more against Notre Dame. “They’re more than any one individual. And if they can continue to get contributions from their other three post players like they got [Sunday], they won’t miss Natalie at all.”
Irish senior guard Kayla McBride has been a part of all of Notre Dame’s recent Final Four teams and is still looking for a national championship. Against Baylor, McBride struggled with foul trouble and put up only 11 points and two rebounds. Against Maryland, however, she bounced back to score 28 points ¾ 19 of which came in the first half ¾ and sparked a 16-4 run that began eight minutes into the game and put the Irish ahead for good.
Win or lose, the all-ACC guard said Tuesday night would be special for her.
“It’s kind of surreal that this is going to be my last game in a Notre Dame uniform,” McBride said. “This program has meant so much to me over the years. … To be able to play in the national championship game and to be able to play for Coach McGraw and with these girls, it means more than you know.”
The Irish and the Huskies resume their rivalry tonight with the national championship on the line at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Tipoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.