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Irish set to face rival Huskies in rematch of last year’s overtime semifinal game

| Friday, April 5, 2019

Like the north and south poles of a magnet, Notre Dame and UConn women’s basketball always seem destined to meet. And this time, as always, it’s at the most crucial juncture of the postseason. The Irish (34-3, 14-2 ACC) and the Huskies (35-2, 16-0) will meet for the second time this season — in the first meeting, the defending national champions fell 89-71 at home. The last time the teams met prior to that matchup was last year’s Final Four, when Irish senior guard Arike Ogunbowale hit a go-ahead jumper with one second remaining in overtime to send Notre Dame to the national championship.

Adding to the drama of Friday’s matchup is that it is the 50th time the Huskies and Irish have played one another, with UConn leading the all-time series 37-12, having won eight of the last nine matchups.

“There were a lot of memorable regular-season games, a lot of memorable NCAA games with a lot on the line,” Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma said while reflecting on the history of the rivalry. “There were some incredibly memorable NCAA Final Four games, championship games where we’re still I think the only teams that would play in the championship game when both teams were undefeated. So much, so much, so many great players on both sides, so many great stories.”

Zachary Yim | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard Jackie Young shoots a jump shot during Notre Dame’s 91-89 win over UConn during the Final Four semifinal March 30, 2018, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Young scored a career-high 32 points during the game.

Much like Notre Dame, UConn relies heavily on its starting five. Each starter has the ability to produce offensively, as all boast averages of over 31 minutes and at least 10 points per game. The Huskies are helmed by seniors forward Napheesa Collier and guard Katie Lou Samuelson, who are third and fifth in points scored in program history, respectively. Collier leads the Huskies at 21 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, while Samuelson is second at 18.5 points per game but leads the team with 86 made 3-pointers on the year.

For Notre Dame, every starter also averages double-digit scoring marks, led by Ogunbowale at 21.5 points per game. Shepard comes in at second with 16.8 points per game and a team-leading 10.2 rebounds per game. While similarities abound between the two teams, the advantage for Notre Dame is in their experience, as the Irish start three seniors and a graduate student and they returned all but one starter from last year’s national championship team.

In the first meeting of the year, then-No. 1 Notre Dame uncharacteristically struggled on the offensive end, scoring only 71 points to then-No. 2 Connecticut’s 89 in what was the worst loss of the year for the Irish. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said that she felt part of the early season struggles was due to the weight of being the No. 1 team in the country to start the year.

“We definitely felt [the pressure] I think throughout the year,” McGraw said. “To be pre-season No. 1 was something I thought weighed a little bit heavier on us. We came out, we played OK early in the season. There were times in January when the season just seemed like it was so long. I think the team was fast forwarding to March. This is kind of boring, could we just get to the tournament. We lost our focus a little bit I think.”

Young led Notre Dame in the first matchup against UConn with 18 points, while Ogunbowale posted a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds to go along with five assists. While all five scorers were in double digits for the Irish, they still struggled from the field, shooting just 40.3%, well below their season average of 51.6% and going only one-of-12 from beyond the arc. Ogunbowale only managed to go six-of-18 from the field and missed all six of her 3-point attempts in the loss.

UConn didn’t fare spectacularly either as the Huskies shot 45.3% from the field, four percentage points below their season average, and went four-of-17 from 3-point range. Still, UConn bested Notre Dame on the offensive end as all five starters scored in double digits and the Huskies out-rebounded the Irish 46-41 and scored 17 second chance points. Another major part of UConn’s victory was the play of freshman guard Christyn Williams, who scored a season-high 28 points against the Irish.

“Williams, that was the best game of her career,” McGraw said. “I don’t think we’ll find a better game on film to watch to see how good she can be. I think we can take a lot from that game.”

Auriemma recognizes, however, that the Irish struggles at the start of the year were an anomaly and that even his team’s best effort could result in a loss.

“When we played them at their place, we played great and I’m not sure they played their best game,” Auriemma said. “I remember being in the Final Four lots of times and saying, ‘If we play our A game, we can’t lose no matter what the other team does.’ This is one of the times where if we don’t play our A game, we’re going to get blown out. Even if we play our A game, we still could lose. That’s how good they are.”

Right now, McGraw says that the Irish are just focusing on the games ahead of them and not thinking about last year’s victories.

“I think we’re confident, but I don’t think you ever can look and say, ‘We did it before, we can do it again,’ but you know how tough it’s going to be,” McGraw said. “We won each game by a basket. It wasn’t as if we were just intimidating everyone. I think going into this one, it’s different. The competition is going to be the same in the first round. Two other different teams coming in. I think we’re looking at it just as it is: this year, new season, new team, see how far we can go.”

The Irish will face the Huskies at 9 p.m. Friday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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