UConn gets defensive and executes its game plan against Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The talk has been about change for the UConn women's basketball team over the past two weeks. The area where the Huskies needed to make arguably the greatest change was at the defensive end in the wake of allowing 88 points at Stanford Nov. 17.
Everything that had been said leading up to Saturday's showdown at No. 2 Notre Dame meant little in the opening minutes. The Irish were doing everything they wanted offensively. And doing it with ease.
All-American Jewell Loyd was unstoppable. Notre Dame made four layups and five 3-pointers among its first 10 field goals, building a 28-18 lead on a 3-pointer by Loyd with 10:10 left in the first half.
Seconds later, UConn coach Geno Auriemma called a timeout. The Huskies were a different team when they emerged from the huddle. They dug in defensively and took control en route to an impressive 76-58 win at Purcell Pavilion.
"It was a timeout of, 'This is what we said we were going to do. This is what we are not doing. Let's go back and do what we said we were going to do,' " Auriemma said. "And they're like, 'We got it. We got it.' And we outscored them by  from that point on. That was pretty good."
UConn (6-1) outscored Notre Dame 58-30 over the final 30 minutes, 10 seconds. The Irish shot just 23.5 percent from the field (12-for-51), were 0-for-9 from 3-point range and were outrebounded 42-23 in this span.
Notre Dame registered season-lows in scoring and field goal percentage (.314). The previous lows came in a 71-63 win against Michigan State Nov. 17 when it shot 37.7 percent.
"I would like to think that it says we're pretty good [defensively]," UConn senior Kiah Stokes said. "But Coach thinks we're terrible. But that's never going to change. One thing that I think translates is because we've been working on defense so much in practice it's translated into the game."
The Irish (8-1) missed 18 of their final 19 shots of the first half as UConn went on a 22-4 run.
"I think the way we communicated and we were on a string," UConn junior Breanna Stewart said. "We were all on the same page and we know that we really wanted to focus on Loyd and [Michaela] Mabrey because they're their two best players. And I think that everyone knew where they were and knew when they needed to help and we rebounded very well."
Loyd (seven turnovers) matched her career-high with 31 points. But after making her first five shots, she made only five of her final 22 and went without a field goal for a stretch of 14:12 (0-for-9). The Huskies outscored the Irish 32-6 during Loyd's inability to make a shot.
Loyd also had little help from her teammates. Lindsay Allen was the only other player to score in double figures (11). Mabrey, who was averaging 9.5 points entering the game, was scoreless [0-for-7 FG].
"I think that we took out two of their best players -- Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd," UConn sophomore Morgan Tuck said. "I think we did a good job containing them. Like, yes, we know they're going to hit a couple shots here and there. But I think we didn't let them get their averages and be able to do the things that they usually like doing."
As well as the Huskies played defensively, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw chose not to give them credit for their performance.
"I thought it was us," McGraw said. "We looked like a deer in headlights. We made some shots early, and then I think when things are going good, that's kind of a young team, they're going to roll along with it. Then when things went bad, Jewell was really the only one that wanted the ball. So I thought that was a problem."
Defense has long been a strength for UConn. If the intensity level against Notre Dame is an indication, it appears that it will be for this team, too.
The Huskies had talked a good game of late. Saturday they backed it up before a sellout crowd of 9,149 and a national television audience.
"At Stanford we had a lot of miscues and we didn't really listen to our game plan," Stewart said. "And [Saturday] we knew who we wanted to force left and who we wanted to force right and we actually did that. Practices have been more intense. We've had a higher intensity, especially defensively. And as you can see it's worked out pretty well."