Unlikely, but not unlucky
Notre Dame’s gameplan against UConn works like a charm
With the Notre Dame’s 8-7 record versus ranked opponents this season, what were the chances that they would knock off two No. 1 seeds to advance to the championship game?
In this case, chances didn’t matter.
“You look at the bracket and I’m pretty sure nobody in America had Notre Dame playing Texas A&M in the final,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw. “So I think we definitely earned it. I think we worked hard to get here.”
The first half was a battle of the All-Americans as the two went neck-and-neck to lead their teams. Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins posted 14 and Connecticut’s Maya Moore dropped 15 first-half points. But the second half would be a different story, with Natalie Novesel sharing the load. Novesel, having only had four points in the first half, became the difference-maker and ended the game with 22 points and helped shift the momentum with a 20-point swing.
“I think Skylar in the beginning kept us in the game,” Novesel said. “We weren’t really playing our game. … And I think in the second half I was frustrated that I didn’t contribute in the first half. And I just came out being really aggressive. We got them on their heels a little bit with foul trouble.”
Notre Dame saw incredible numbers from Diggins and Novesel. The two guards didn’t settle for beyond the arc, with only four 3-pointers in the entire game, and attacked the basket racking up points and drawing fouls. Points in the paint totaled 40 -- with 14 of those coming from the post-players trio of Devereaux Peters, Becca Bruszewski and Natalie Achonwa.
Ironically, Notre Dame’s game plan was not to stop Maya Moore. It was to stop everyone else, and they did just that. Tiffany Hayes, Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson and Kelly Faris, the team’s No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 top scorers, typically pitch in with approximately 45 points a game. In Sunday’s game, they were held to 25, each of them putting up numbers below average.
“If that’s off [Maya’s] game, then that’s pretty amazing. She’s an amazing player. She singlehandedly tried to will them back into the game,” McGraw said. “…But I think we got everybody else to get out of their game a little bit more and force Maya to have the pressure of carrying the team.”
UConn had gone 263 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to shoot over 50 percent from the field. But not tonight. Notre Dame shot over 50 percent in field-goals, 3-pointers and free-throws.
“You know, in the first half we could see that there was going to be a problem guarding [Skylar] the whole game,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “But we did a pretty decent job on everybody else. And in the second half, we allowed her to get everybody else involved, and then it was not just having to guard Skylar, but it’s the plays that she made for other people. And you know that’s what great players do.”
Now, two No. 2 seeds advance to vie for a national title for only the second time in history, with the last being in 1994. Sometimes, being No. 2 isn’t too shabby.
• Notre Dame is now 5-28 all-time against Connecticut. One of the other four victories came in the 2001 national semifinals where the Fighting Irish won 90-75.
• In its first three meetings this season, Notre Dame shot a combined 35.3 percent from the field, while Connecticut was 47.4 percent. On Sunday, Notre Dame shot 51.9 percent and UConn was 42.4 percent from the field.
• With Notre Dame’s win, this marks only the third time in NCAA history that a team has battled for a championship game in its home state.
• Prior to Sunday’s matchup, the largest lead by Notre Dame was six points against UConn. Tonight the Fighting Irish led by as many as 12.