ND Women’s Basketball
Notre Dame, Connecticut meet once more in national championship
Greg Hadley | Monday, April 6, 2015
TAMPA, Fla. — You may think you’ve seen this game before.
Dec. 10, 2014. April 8, 2014. April 7, 2013. Every time, the same storyline and the same result. Despite a flurry of pregame hype, favored Connecticut defeats underdog Notre Dame by a comfortable margin.
But while from the outside, the two teams might appear to be in the same position for Tuesday night’s NCAA title game, the Irish (36-2) and the Huskies (37-1) are far different squads from what they were two years, last season or even five months ago.
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw almost had to start from scratch with this year’s young players, who matured and developed throughout the year and even into the postseason.
“Last year was a business‑like approach. We had a really good team coming in undefeated, which was an amazing, amazing feat for us to accomplish,” McGraw said. “ … We had so many players that could score. Kayla McBride has had so much success against Connecticut in the past.
“I think it’s a lot different in that way just because our experience last year and this year. We’re still a little giddy [to be in the championship].”
That giddiness was on display Sunday night after the Irish squeaked by South Carolina, 66-65, in the Final Four, despite the absence of the team’s second and third leading scorers, freshman forward Brianna Turner and sophomore guard Lindsay Allen, who both fouled out.
Without Allen and Turner, Notre Dame needed late-game heroics from senior guard Madison Cable, who scored the game-winning bucket with 16 seconds left, and junior guard Hannah Huffman, who foiled junior guard Tiffany Mitchell’s final possession for the Gamecocks.
“We’ve grown throughout the season handling adversity, like last night even after I fouled out. When South Carolina got an offensive rebound, we could’ve put our heads down low,” Turner said. “I think throughout the year we’ve really learned how to handle adversity.”
But before the Irish advanced to their fourth title game in five years, they had already faced their opponent in Tuesday’s championship. Back on Dec. 10, Notre Dame was dismantled by the Huskies in a 76-58 loss at home.
Neither team, however, sees that game as indicative of what will transpire in Tampa, Florida, tomorrow.
“It’s night and day,” Irish sophomore Taya Reimer said when asked how Notre Dame had changed since then. “We are such a different team. Everybody has grown since then. We’ve become more of a team I think.
“At this point of the season, we have so many different weapons, so many people that can do so many different things.”
“Those are two completely different teams now,” Connecticut junior guard Moriah Jefferson said. “They play different, we play different. You can’t look at that game and measure it for what this game is going to be.”
A big reason for both teams’ attitude is the presence of the 6-foot-3 Turner inside. Five months ago, Turner was missing from the Irish lineup due to a right shoulder injury. In her absence, the Huskies dominated inside, winning the rebounding battle, 52-34, and putting up 44 points in the paint.
As Notre Dame’s top shot blocker, rebounder and second best scorer, Turner and her spot in the post will present a challenge for Connecticut it did not face Dec. 10, Huskies junior forward Breanna Stewart said.
“She is obviously an athletic post player and the way she runs the floor and seems to be constantly crashing the boards is something that is going to be different from the first time we played them this year,” Stewart said.
Turner is not the only Irish post player who could impact the game Tuesday. Sophomore forward Taya Reimer has emerged as a reliable scorer and rebounder for Notre Dame, putting up 16 points and six boards against South Carolina, as well as a teacher to Turner and the team’s other freshman forward, Kathryn Westbeld.
“She’s become a mentor to the post,” McGraw said. “She’s only a sophomore and we’re expecting so much from her. And she just continues to deliver. She’s been our steadiest player all year long, and I think it’s because of her that our whole post game has really improved.”
But despite all the changes from one year to another or within this season, the narrative of the game’s top two teams meeting once more still pervades, Irish junior guard Jewell Loyd said.
“These games are, I think, going down in history books,” Loyd said. “You know, we have some great games, girls, the rivalry, the greatest coaches — it’s historic … on this big stage two passionate teams going at it. It’s going to be a great game.”
However, unlike last year’s title tilt, when both teams were undefeated and the pregame hype focused on the growing enmity between the programs, both head coaches praised each other Monday.
A year after declaring the rivalry at a point past civility, McGraw said she and Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma were cordial.
“We have a really good relationship. I think we see each other out recruiting. We talk on the road,” McGraw said. “I think he’s the kind of guy that … if I wanted to talk offense and I called him, I think we would sit down and talk about offense, recruiting or really anything that we wanted to.
“I think that both being from Philly, we just share some sort of a bond. … But I think a lot of respect on both sides.”
Auriemma said he was impressed by Notre Dame’s staying power on the national level.
“Because they’re so good, they end up here all those years that we were here,” Auriemma said. “And I think it’s a credit, and it says a lot about them and what they’ve been able to do.”
Notre Dame and Connecticut meet once more in the national championship Tuesday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. Tipoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.