ND Women’s Basketball
All too familiar: Notre Dame falls to Connecticut in NCAA title game
Mary Green | Wednesday, April 8, 2015
TAMPA, Fla. — Narrow the gap, fall back. Narrow the gap, fall back. Narrow the gap, fall back.
That was the theme for much of the second half between No. 1 seed Notre Dame and No. 1 seed Connecticut, and ultimately, it kept the Irish from their long-awaited second national championship and gave the Huskies their 10th in a 63-53 game at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.
“They’re a great team, and they had an answer for all of our runs,” Irish senior guard Madison Cable said.
Notre Dame (36-3) started the second half down eight and opened with a 3-pointer from junior guard Michaela Mabrey that brought the deficit to five. However, a series of free throws and layups from Connecticut quickly had the Irish trailing by 12.
They closed the gap to six a few minutes later and got into an offensive rhythm led by freshman forward Brianna Turner, but they also struggled in their transition defense, allowing a response from Connecticut (38-1) to every basket they made on five out of six straight possessions.
After a two-minute period that was marked by just one bucket between the two teams — a layup from Turner that cut the Huskies’ lead to seven — the trend resumed for another three minutes, almost like clockwork.
Turner made a layup, and Huskies freshman guard Kia Nurse hit a 3-pointer.
Seven minutes left and Connecticut up by eight.
Turner banked in an uncharacteristically deep jumper as the shot clock expired, but junior guard Moriah Jefferson knocked in a layup.
Six minutes left, with the deficit still at eight.
Sophomore guard Lindsay Allen weaved through traffic for a layup, and Huskies senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis drilled a 3.
Five minutes remaining and Connecticut is now ahead by nine.
“It was really hard. When we got that close, a mental lapse would happen, and then we would allow a transition 3 or a backdoor basket or just a wide-open layup,” Allen said. “So it’s just about focusing on the little things, and those lapses can’t happen if we want to be a great team.”
Mosqueda-Lewis then hammered the final two nails in the coffin of Notre Dame’s hopes for a comeback, hitting a jumper and a layup to take the Huskies’ lead to 13 with two-and-a-half minutes left.
After the Allen layup, Notre Dame recorded just one more field goal, but the 3-pointer from Michaela Mabrey was a moot point with 1:33 left on the clock and the Irish down by double-digits.
“I’m glad that the two buckets that ‘K’ made down the stretch were kind of the difference in the game,” Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma said of Mosqueda-Lewis, who totaled 15 points. “And that’s the way she’s supposed to go out because she made a big difference all year and throughout her career.”
While Mosqueda-Lewis finalized Connecticut’s victory at the tail end of that stretch, Turner allowed the Irish to stay in the hunt for most of it.
The freshman had recorded just three rebounds and no points in the first half, and she didn’t hit her first field goal of the game until 23 minutes in, a layup that cut the Connecticut lead to 10.
“I think I wasn’t aggressive enough,” Turner said. “I was really timid in the first half.”
She went on a tear after that, putting up 14 total points on 7-for-8 shooting after the break and pulling down 10 boards.
“She does some amazing things on the court, for her to be a freshman and keep fighting the way she did, she just knew she could do great things in such a huge game,” sophomore forward Taya Reimer said.
Turner’s 14 points led the Irish, while Mosqueda-Lewis and Jefferson’s 15 points paced Connecticut. Jefferson was also charged with the task of guarding junior guard Jewell Loyd for most of the night and limited Notre Dame’s leading scorer to 12 points on 4-for-18 shooting.
“I thought she was a great defender tonight,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of Jefferson. “I thought she made things hard for Jewell. … we weren’t able to really get anything going because most of our offense runs through Jewell, and she did a great job denying her the ball.”
The Irish were able to limit Huskies junior forward Breanna Stewart to single-figure scoring with eight points, below her season average of 17.6, but she still made her presence felt, grabbing 15 of her team’s 34 rebounds.
“I thought that Brianna Turner did a great job on her,” McGraw said. “That was the matchup we were hoping for. She was able to stay out of foul trouble and made it difficult for Bre to get any shots and I thought [Turner] just did a great job both guarding her on the outside and the inside.”
The Irish jockeyed back and forth with the Huskies for the game’s early lead, with Notre Dame ahead by as many as three about three minutes into the action.
After opening the game by connecting on four of their first six attempts, the Irish reached a sudden cold spell, missing nine of their next 10 shots and turning the ball over 13 times in the first half, just below their season average of 14.8 per game. Notre Dame, the nation’s second-best offense in terms of field-goal percentage (49.6 percent), shot 33.3 percent during the entire 40 minutes.
“[It was] disappointing in, I think, that we weren’t able to really play our game,” McGraw said. “I feel as though, offensively, we never got into any rhythm.”
Despite the outcome, Notre Dame’s performance this time around was a step up from the way it played in 2014’s 79-58 loss to Connecticut in the title game.
“We’re getting closer than last year,” Loyd said. “We kept fighting until the buzzer, and we had our chances to push the lead down to two, and we didn’t stop fighting. Last year, it was a blowout early on. We didn’t compete, and [this year] we fought all the way down to the final minute.
“That’s the difference between this year and last year. We competed.”