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ND Women’s Basketball

Rivals set to collide

| Thursday, December 4, 2014

Two titanic programs meet Saturday in one of the most dynamic rivalries in women’s basketball when No. 3 Connecticut visits Purcell Pavilion to play the No. 2 Irish.

“It’s a great game for women’s basketball,” Irish coach Muffett McGraw said Thursday during a teleconference. “I think everyone in the country gets excited about the rivalry. … This game has kind of a special place.”

After years of competition in the Big East, the two schools did not meet last regular season as Notre Dame (8-0) shifted to the ACC and UConn (5-1) moved to the American Athletic Conference.

But the Irish and Huskies squared off in the NCAA championship April 8 in Nashville. UConn won the first-ever championship clash of unbeatens, 79-58, to wrap up the season at 40-0. Notre Dame finished 37-1.

The Irish played without forward Natalie Achonwa, sidelined with an ACL tear suffered in the regional final against Baylor.

Achonwa has since graduated, as have guard Kayla McBride and forward Ariel Braker, making way for freshmen Brianna Turner (forward), Kathryn Westbeld (forward) and Mychal Johnson (guard) who have racked up minutes and made an immediate impact.

“This class is probably among the best we’ve ever had,” McGraw said.

Huskies center Stefanie Dolson and guard Bria Hartley graduated as well, and UConn welcomed four freshmen this season, including guard Kia Nurse, who has averaged 13.7 points per game as the Huskies’ third leading scorer.

Notre Dame and Connecticut do, however, return key veterans despite the graduation of several star players.

Huskies senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and junior forward Breanna Stewart have led UConn’s scoring with 18.0 and 16.7 points per game, respectively.

For the Irish, junior guard Jewell Loyd has once again established herself as the team’s leading scorer at 21.1 points per game.

“She’s improved,” McGraw said of Loyd. “She’s worked on her game, and she’s one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, in the gym, and … I think she’s been waiting for this opportunity to shine.”

Sophomore forward Taya Reimer and senior guard Madison Cable have also made strides in their development this season, and the Irish have spread the ball around through their first eight games, McGraw said.

“We aren’t a one-man team,” McGraw said. “We can’t be a one-man team.”

Turner too had leapt onto the scene as a starter in every game and the team’s second leading scorer before a shoulder injury in the first half of Wednesday’s 92-72 win over No. 15 Maryland limited her to just four minutes on the floor and no points. McGraw said Thursday she had no update on Turner’s status but that the injury occurred as Turner tried to recover a loose ball on the floor.

On the heels of the Maryland game, UConn’s visit marks the first time this season the Irish will play back-to-back ranked opponents, and both are rematches of Notre Dame’s two Final Four games last season.

“It’s interesting how that worked out,” McGraw said. “It’s good for us because we have to get ready for the ACC. … I think the caliber of teams we have to play will give us a good idea for where we are in December.”

The Huskies are 1-1 on the road this season with an overtime loss to Stanford, 88-86, on Nov. 17. This weekend, Notre Dame will have the benefit of a large home crowd, an advantage the Irish freshmen have quickly learned to appreciate.

“They love playing at the Joyce Center,” McGraw said after Wednesday’s game against Maryland. “They found that out the exhibition game. The crowd had so much energy, and they love our fans. They know how exciting it’s going to be.”

The Irish and Huskies tip off at 3:15 p.m. Saturday at Purcell Pavilion.

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