ND Women’s Basketball
The dogs’ day
Greg Hadley | Wednesday, April 9, 2014
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 2 Notre Dame’s perfect run came to an ugly end Tuesday night, as top-ranked Connecticut broke away from the Irish in the second half of the NCAA national championship game on the way to a 79-58 win.In the second half, the Huskies (40-0, 18-0 AAC) outscored the Irish (37-1, 16-0 ACC) 34-20 and dominated on the boards with a 34-13 edge in rebounding. With the absence of senior forward Natalie Achonwa, the Irish had no answer for Connecticut senior center Stefanie Dolson, who scored 17 points on 10-for-15 shooting and grabbed 16 rebounds.
“Obviously, not having Ace [Natalie Achonwa] is very crucial,” Irish sophomore guard Jewell Loyd said. “She brings so much to the table. But we didn’t do the little things. We didn’t box out, we didn’t communicate. We were kind of playing on our heels a little bit.”
Loyd finished the game with 13 points on 4-for-15 shooting, including just 2-for-12 in the second half.
“We made them look like the Miami Heat,” Loyd said. “It was us. I personally don’t think that they’re better than us. They’re definitely not deeper than us. We just played scared. We played tentatively. We let them control how we played. It happens.”
With 14:54 left in the first half, Dolson scored a quick layup that put the Huskies up 10-8 and sparked a 14-0 run. They would never trail again. Sophomore forward Breanna Stewart dominated inside and scored 14 points in the first half, tied for the lead among all scorers.
But the Irish rallied from the 22-8 deficit to keep the game close in the first half, closing to within five with 27 seconds left in the period. Loyd, senior guard Kayla McBride and sophomore guard Michaela Mabrey combined to score 34 of Notre Dame’s 38 first-half points, producing most of their offense from behind the 3-point arc, where the Irish shot 62.5 percent in the period.
In the second half, the Huskies came out aggressively and pushed their lead to 21 on an 18-4 run, while limiting the Irish to just 26-percent shooting in the period. The Huskies relied heavily on their starters, with just six points coming from the bench.
“I thought we were just overmatched,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “If we could have made them go to their bench a little earlier in the second half, we might have had a chance. That’s when we made our run in the first half, but unfortunately, they didn’t have to go their bench in the second half.”
After posting a career-high 12 points and nine rebounds against Maryland in the semifinals Sunday night, junior forward Markisha Wright was held completely in check by the Huskies, with no points or rebounds in 10 minutes of play. Freshman forward Taya Reimer scored six points and collected four rebounds while struggling to contain Dolson and Huskies junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
“It was a very physical game and we knew it was going to be physical,” Reimer said. “They just came out and punched us in the mouth. They are a great team.”
The matchup marked the first time in women’s basketball history that two undefeated teams were playing for the national championship. Despite entering as the favorite, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said that before tipoff he had been unsure of how his team would handle the pressure.
“You just don’t know how college kids are going to play on the biggest stage,” Auriemma said. “You don’t know how … the hype of the game with two great undefeated teams [will affect them] … and just cross your fingers and hope that they play up to their ability. So I couldn’t be more proud of how we played the entire 40 minutes.”
With the win, Auriemma improves to 9-0 in national championship games for his career. His nine national titles surpass former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s previous record of eight. The Huskies also set an NCAA record this weekend by playing in their seventh-straight Final Four.
“It means we’ve done something that no one else has ever done,” Auriemma said when asked what the nine titles meant to him. “So, you’re flattered and you’re grateful and you’re all the things that come with this kind of accomplishment, of course.”
The loss is Notre Dame’s third in the national championship game in the past four years and marks a bitter end to the careers of seniors McBride, Achonwa and Ariel Braker, who leave the program with a record of 138-15 but no national championship.
“[My time at Notre Dame] has been amazing,” Braker said. “I came in with two other girls who were just dominating and we set records. … We went undefeated until the last game of our senior year. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”
McBride echoed Braker’s sentiments.
“We’ve been through so much this year, so much adversity,” she said. “If you look at what our bench has done this year, I couldn’t be more proud of them. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else or playing with anyone else.”