Why Notre Dame will win
When you tune into Sunday’s Notre Dame-Connecticut game, don’t change the channel. It isn’t a replay of last year’s Women’s Final Four semifinal contest –- the Irish and the Huskies will be battling to play in the NCAA title game for the second consecutive year.
And while the two teams are more than familiar with each other after playing each other four times this season and eight times in the past two years, this semifinal contest may be a little different in one respect. Notre Dame is no longer intimidated by the Huskies.
“Once we beat them last year in the Final Four, we kind of realized – it was an eye-opener for us – that we can play with this team,” senior guard Brittany Mallory said.
That 72-63 victory in Indianapolis last year stopped UND’s 12-game losing streak to UConn dating back to 2005.
“I think last year coming into the Final Four as the underdog, and the upset coming in, it was like a Cinderella story,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “This year, coming in as a No. 1 seed, I think it’s a little more business-like.”
The Irish have certainly shown they have their eyes on the prize after it slipped from their fingers in last year’s national championship game against Texas A&M. With four starters back from the 2011 Final Four squad, the confident and experienced group claimed the two regular season matchups against UConn before falling in the Big East championship game 63-54.
The loss to the Huskies in the league championship, however, just left the Irish hungrier entering the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame has dominated foes in four NCAA postseason games, outscoring opponents by 29.3 points per game.
The Irish made a statement in the Raleigh Regional final with an 80-49 victory against fifth-ranked Maryland -– a game that many analysts thought would go to the Terrapins.
Junior guard Skylar Diggins notched a triple-double in the Maryland contest with 22 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
Diggins said that in the last UConn matchup, the Huskies prevailed because they out-hustled the Irish. Don’t expect that to happen this time around with so much on the line.
“There’s no mystery left,” Mallory said. “There’s not going to be any surprises. It’s all about heart, who is going to play the hardest, who is going to execute and play well.”
Notre Dame will be diving for every loose ball, every second chance point, every offensive rebound. The effort in Sunday’s contest will be the difference, not intimidation.
–Amy Farnum, NCAA.com
Why UConn will win
The Huskies have one key advantage when they face Notre Dame on Sunday. Experience.
Where the player lack in experience, head coach Geno Auriemma more than makes up for it. He has led Connecticut to 24 NCAA tournaments where he holds a record of 85-16, including 13 Women’s Final Four appearances and seven national championships, trailing only Tennessee, which has made it to the Big Dance 18 times.
The Huskies may not have an AP All-American this season, but what they do have is four players posting double figures on a consistent basis.
“We’re not a team with superstars, we didn’t have any pre-season All-Americans so no one really expected us to be as dominant as we have been this year,” guard Bria Hartley said. “I think we did use that as motivation a little bit.”
No other team headed to the Rockies with such a balanced attack. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is averaging 15 points a game, with Tiffany Hayes not far behind at 14.8. Bria Hartley stands at 13.9 per game and Stephanie Dolson posts 10.2 on average. On any given night, the coaching staff can depend on any one of this foursome to step up and lead the Huskies.
Auriemma knows how to win games and he knows how to win championships. He doesn’t have a Maya Moore or a Tina Charles on his team this year, but the Huskies have proven they don’t need the Player of the Year to contend for a title.
Even though he only has five players with NCAA tournament experience prior to this year, he does have a team with passion and determination. Determination, if nothing else, to simply prove Auriemma wrong after his preseason prediction that this year’s Huskies could not win a national championship.
The Huskies will face a familiar opponent in the Fighting Irish, having faced them three times already this season, defeating them in their past two meetings after losing the first matchup.
Despite having luck fall in their corner during the past two matchups against Notre Dame, Connecticut had more turnovers. Taking care of the ball more will help the Huskies put even more points on the board.
Another key will be getting more than one player on a roll at the same time, especially behind the 3-point arc where the Huskies rely heavily for points. With multiple threats on the hardwood, it will throw the Notre Dame defense off not allowing them to focus in on shutting down one person.
On the defensive end, Connecticut will need to limit the Fighting Irish’s top threats. This year’s team leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 29.9 percent holding the opposition to an average of 46.1 points per game.
Or perhaps the only thing the Huskies need to fire them up is another familiar snide comment from Auriemma, giving the players just another reason to prove him wrong.
–Summer McKesson, NCAA.com