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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame wins Final Four rematch with UConn to advance to title game

| Saturday, April 6, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. — Last year’s Final Four heroics were all offensive. With an off-balance buzzer-beater, then-junior guard Arike Ogunbowale punched her team’s ticket to the national championship game.

But this year, in a rematch of last season’s national semifinal, it was defense that saved the day. With just 49 seconds remaining in the game, graduate student forward Brianna Turner refused to let her collegiate basketball career end — showing no mercy under the hoop, she swatted away AP First-Team All-American Napheesa Collier’s point-blank jump shot.

The shot, which would have brought the Huskies back within one, almost certainly locked in the Irish win by definitively shifting the game’s momentum and allowing the Irish to survive with a 81-76 win over the Huskies.

“I was just really excited and focused, ready to go,” Turner said of the game. “Really looked forward to this game [and] being able to compete out there.”

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard drives around her defender during Notre Dame’s 81-76 win over UConn in the Final Four at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on Friday.

Despite the game’s high stakes, both teams came out of their respective locker rooms looking flat. It was the Irish (35-3, 14-2 ACC) who struck first, winning the tip and netting the first bucket on a second-chance layup. The teams then exchanged possessions and points, but for the remainder of the quarter, the game was anything but even.

After junior guard Crystal Dangerfield nailed a jumper to make it even at 4, UConn (35-3, 16-0 AAC) ran away with the first quarter, hitting a 9-0 run behind a pair of layups, a jumper and a 3 to pull ahead of Notre Dame, 13-4. But the veteran squad didn’t panic, clawing back within arms-reach behind an 8-3 run spurred by a quick layup from Turner.

At the end of the frame, the Irish faced only a four-point deficit, 16-12, despite a flustered first-quarter performance. Hitting just 30% of their looks from the field and going 0-5 from behind the arc, the two-score deficit was not necessarily reflective of Notre Dame’s poor first-quarter performance as it played from behind for just over six-and-a-half minutes of the 10-minute frame.

But to start the second quarter, the Irish came alive. Or at least senior forward Jessica Shepard did.

Shepard, who had a relatively quiet first quarter behind one-for-five shooting for two points, single-handedly shifted the momentum of the game, bringing her team back within striking-distance, and — for the first time all night — into the lead. Shepard used the first 2:06 of the frame to go on an eight-point run, hitting a jumper and scooping home three layups. In a flash, the Irish had the lead, holding a four-point advantage at 20-16 after keeping the Huskies scoreless for the beginning of the frame. The rest of the quarter was a dogfight.

With nine lead changes and better shooting from both sides — both inside and from beyond the arc — the pace of the game surged as each team made clutch shots and stops, receiving real contributions from each and every player on the court. As the game and shot clocks almost simultaneously expired behind an intense back-and-forth 10 minutes, freshman guard Christyn Williams reminded the crowd how her team earned a spot in the Final Four to begin with, hitting a mid-range jumper to take UConn into the half one point ahead, 30-29, despite being outscored 17-14 in the period.

Going into the locker room, Shepard remained the leading offensive force for the Irish with a game-leading 12 points, 10 of which she scored in the second quarter. But Notre Dame was still in a rut defensively, unable to find a solution for UConn’s packed-in 2-3 zone, particularly along the perimeter.

“First half I thought we really struggled to score,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “The second half really just caught fire. I think we played our normal game in the third quarter.”

In the third frame Notre Dame posted its best shooting numbers of the night, going 8-13 for 61.5% from the field and 2-3 from distance. The Irish were unable to pull away, with the Huskies’ Katie Lou Samuelson erupting from behind the arc and netting her team’s final nine points of the quarter. The senior guard’s quarter-ending performance left Notre Dame facing a deficit at the end of the frame yet again, 54-52.

Samuelson’s deep shot continued to give the Irish trouble to start the final quarter, sparking a 10-3 run which vaulted UConn back into the driver’s seat of the game, 64-55. With seven-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Notre Dame faced its largest deficit of the day, but the veteran team was anything but flustered.

“We didn’t flinch,” Shepard said. “We weren’t rattled. We are an upperclassman team, we’ve been there before and we know that we couldn’t let the moment be bigger than us. So, we came out with our composure and maintained it up until the end of the game.”

Turner echoed her teammate’s thoughts on the deficit.

“I think the maturity of this team, being mostly upperclassmen playing tonight, just making sure we’re staying relaxed, not getting too anxious,” Turner said. “We knew against, like last week, coming out versus Stanford, coming out we were down, able to come back. Coach jokes we’re a second-half team. We knew we had to come back, whatever it took, no matter how many points it took.”

With a not-unfamiliar tenacity, the Irish clawed their way back into the game, hitting a 13-2 run of their own to recapture the lead at 68-66 with just under four minutes remaining.

The remainder of the game was exceptionally back-and-forth. Until it wasn’t. Until the block. With a swat that solidified her as the new all-time blocker in Notre Dame program history, Turner made defense — what her squad struggled with all night — the hero of the day. After the harsh denial in the paint, UConn was unable to pull it together offensively. And that was all she wrote.

“We just weren’t good enough tonight to do it,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I mean, it’s not anything other than they were just better than us tonight. They were better than us when the season started and they were better than us tonight. They had more good players play better and contribute more than we did. That’s just the way the world is. They deserved to win, and we didn’t do quite enough to win. That’s it.”

With the victory, the Irish will advance to their second national final in as many years for the championship title. They will take on Baylor, the winner of the other semifinal game, at 6 p.m. on Sunday.

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