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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish renew rivalry with trip to UConn

| Friday, December 6, 2019

Women’s college basketball’s most intense rivalry in recent memory will be renewed on Sunday as Notre Dame (5-5, 0-0 ACC) takes on No. 4 UConn (7-0, 1-0 AAC) at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut.

It will be the 51st meeting all-time between the two storied programs, who have combined to win 13 national championships. The lineups for both teams, however, will look markedly different from when the two teams last met in Tampa in April, when the Irish prevailed 81-76 to defeat the Huskies in the Final Four for a second consecutive season. 

While the Huskies are certainly not the same team after losing both Nepheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson to the WNBA, the Irish have faced the larger rebuild this season. Besides sidelined sophomore guard Abby Prohaska, junior center Mikayla Vaughn is the only current member of the Irish who played in that Final Four victory, and she saw the floor for only two minutes in that game. 

The contrasting fortunes of both teams at the start of this season has therefore been predictable. While UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s team has started the season unbeaten against unranked opposition, the Irish have been inconsistent at best. Although Notre Dame has picked up wins over No. 24 Michigan and then-No. 21 South Florida, the Irish will be looking to bounce back after a frustrating loss at home to Minnesota on Wednesday.

Junya Kanemitsu | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert drives against a defender in an 84-60 victory against Loyola Maryland at Purcell Pavilion on November 8.

After the Golden Gophers built an 18-point lead in the first half behind seven first half-threes, the Irish clawed back and took the lead with just over five minutes to go. Minnesota then responded with a 17-4 run out of a timeout and never looked back. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw, whose icy relationship with Auriemma has been a pervading symbol of the rivalry, knows the Irish’s perimeter defense must improve, especially given UConn has shot a respectable 37% from beyond the arc this season. 

When asked about adjustments for Monday’s contest, McGraw responded simply.

“Well, I’d like to guard the three-point line,” she said. “That’s kind of been my goal all along. But even when we went man-to-man, they came down and shot right in our face. We don’t have any pride in our defense at all; I can’t really teach that. So, you know what, we’re just gonna keep working at it.” 

While things might look bleak for the Irish, the performance of highly-touted freshman forward Sam Brunelle has certainly been a bright spot. Brunelle led Notre Dame with 19 points against the Golden Gophers, and is second only to sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert in scoring this year with 13.5 points per game.

When UConn surprisingly routed Notre Dame 89-71 last year in South Bend during the regular season, it was then-freshman Christyn Williams who stole the show for the Huskies when she torched the Irish with 28 points. Perhaps Irish fans can hope for similar heroics from the talented Brunelle, who after the Minnesota game admitted McGraw has already pushed her to be a leader for the group. 

“Honestly I’ve talked to the coaches so many times and … they want me to be a leader,” she said. “And they’ve said that from the get-go, and so I trust them. They’re the best coaches in the nation and I’m going to do what they tell me to do. And I wanted to come in here and be a leader and so I’m just trying to be as big as a leader I can be, no matter if I’m a freshman or senior.”

Sunday’s contest might be decided in the frontcourt, as both teams lean on strong offensive play inside. The Irish have shot just 23% from beyond the arc this season and scored a season-high 44 points in the paint on Wednesday. UConn is led in scoring by junior forward Meghan Walker, who has an average of 20.3 points per game. Both teams have been less than stellar on the boards, however.

Opponents have out-rebounded Notre Dame by 8.5 a game this season, while the Huskies have been similarly outmuscled against teams such as Cal, though they have managed a +4.5 rebounding margin on the year. 

McGraw noted how a lack of toughness inside proved detrimental to the Irish against the Golden Gophers.

“[Minnesota] got really physical with us and we just didn’t stay strong,” McGraw said. “We let them push us around. We got really scared and, you know, just wouldn’t attack and then we’re trying to shoot over a shot blocker instead of trying to take her off the dribble and get to the free throw line.”

McGraw, however, was happy with the effort of freshman Anaya Peoples, who led the Irish with 14 rebounds against Minnesota and has chipped in with 13.5 points per game as well. 

“It’s all effort,” McGraw said. “[Peoples] goes in to work. She’s not afraid of a physical game and she did a really good job on the boards.” 

The battle between both backcourts should also be an intriguing subplot. The Irish are led in scoring by Gilbert, who has put up 14.9 points per game and is complemented by graduate student Destinee Walker, who has averaged 13.5 points per game herself.

They will face their biggest challenge of the year so far against the Huskies, though Williams might not be accompanied by electric starting point-guard Crystal Dangerfield, who missed UConn’s 75-37 win over Dayton with back spasms. If Dangerfield is unable to feature on Sunday, she will likely be replaced by fellow senior Molly Bent, who started and played 31 minutes versus Dayton. 

Sunday’s matchup is also the annual Women’s Jimmy V Classic for the second straight year and will be live on ESPN at 4 p.m. 

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