ND Women’s Basketball
No. 1 Notre Dame prepares for clash of titans with No. 2 Connecticut
Elizabeth Greason | Saturday, December 1, 2018
The last time they squared off, everything was on the line. And the always-storied matchup between Notre Dame and Connecticut did not disappoint, going into overtime in the national semifinal game, before the Irish advanced to national championship on a near-buzzer beater by then-junior guard Arike Ogunbowale.
Sunday, the No. 1 Irish (7-0) and the No. 2 Huskies (6-0) — two of the sport’s most storied programs — will meet again at Purcell Pavilion in the Jimmy V. Women’s Classic: the regular-season clash of titans, if you will.
However, despite the eyes that will be turned toward the Irish on Sunday, head coach Muffet McGraw said the annual regular-season meeting between the two teams is one she uses as a gauge for the improvements the Irish need to make going into conference play.
“It’s a game in early December that’s going to determine a little bit about where we are and how far we need to get to,” McGraw said. “It’s going to be a good barometer for us to see where we are. With [senior guard] Marina [Mabrey] just coming back [from injury], I feel like we’re still having some growing pains. It’s going to be a good test, an early test and it’s going to help us prepare for the ACC.”
Despite the fact that the implications at this point in the season are limited, Notre Dame is excited for the opportunity to take on its archrival.
“I think it’s really exciting. You want to be the best, you want to play the best and UConn, obviously, they’re always a top program in the country,” graduate student forward Brianna Turner said. “Just for the game of women’s basketball, all the hype that’s around this game, the people that are tuning in, I think it’s really good for women’s basketball overall.”
Throughout the first seven games of the season, McGraw has bemoaned the state of Notre Dame’s defensive play. In order to defeat the Huskies, however, she and her players know the defense is going to have to be an emphasis throughout the game.
“Our transition defense is not as good as it could be, that’s mostly effort. I think we could rebound a little bit better, and I think that’s mostly effort. I think our communication could be better and I think that’s pretty easy to solve,” McGraw said. “So, I think all of the problems that we’re having defensively, we could fix them in a day.”
Mabrey missed the first five games of the season and returned for Notre Dame’s 91-81 win over Oregon State — a return that, over just two games, has proven key for the Irish. The senior guard is one of Notre Dame’s top defenders and 3-point shooters, two aspects of the game that will prove critical against the Huskies.
“We wouldn’t have won the Oregon State game without [Mabrey], no question about that,” McGraw said. “She just adds so much, in terms of the level of intensity, defensively, goes up. I think the leadership improves. Plus, we get to stretch the defense and we have somebody that can shoots 3s. We were not shooting it as well. Now, having her back in the lineup, I think that really helps our offense.”
In terms of defending UConn, McGraw is particularly concerned with controlling the 3-point line. So far this season, the Irish have been able to hold their opponents to just a 30.8 3-point shooting percentage. However, in their first six games, the Huskies are shooting 41.8 percent from behind the arc, led by senior Katie Lou Samuelson, who has made 18 3-pointers on the season, and junior Crystal Dangerfield, with 14, both of whom are familiar faces to the Irish.
“I think DePaul and Drake were very similar teams, I think that helped us a little with Oregon State, just being able to get out on the 3-point line and understanding that the posts had to get out on the 3-point line,” McGraw said. “I think we’ve had some experience with that, which really should help us, because Connecticut’s got five players that can shoot 3s.”
While Samuelson, Dangerfield and senior Napheesa Collier are familiar foes for Notre Dame, McGraw, Turner and Ogunbowale all noted a win over Connecticut in the Final Four means nothing in December, as both teams are completely different-looking this early in the season — especially Notre Dame, with both freshman guards Jordan Nixon and Katlyn Gilbert will be out with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder, respectively.
“I think there’s a little bit of confidence, but it’s a new year. We don’t have the same team as last year and UConn doesn’t have the same team as last year,” Turner said. “Both our teams are different this year. And everyone’s hungry. We’re the defending national champions, so I know everyone wants us bad.”
However, Ogunbowale knows the Huskies are still replaying the final seconds of that loss, as she feels they will be especially hungry coming into the game, something the Irish have to be prepared for.
“I’m sure they’re going to be motivated off of that [semifinal loss],” she said. “I mean, whether they won that or not, they were going to be motivated to play us anyway, so it’s just going to be a good game.”
The main message of the day Sunday for McGraw, however? Win or lose, you’ve got to go out and fight and have a good time.
“I think it’s just, it’s not life and death right now. You’ve got to go into the game and play your game,” she said. “You can’t be worried about the rankings and worried about anything else externally. You’ve got to go out, enjoy the experience; it’s going to be a great day.”
That being said, however, the Hall-of-Famer has high expectations for her defending national champions.
“I think we’re a confident team. I think we go into this game believing we can win and that certainly is our mindset right now,” McGraw said.