Why Notre Dame will win

Three times the Fighting Irish have faced Connecticut this season, and three times they have come out with a “W.” None of the matchups were blowouts (one even went to three overtimes), but they all came down to which team wanted it more. Each time so far this season, Notre Dame has come through in the clutch and earned the victory.

“I think all three of the first three games were decided within the last couple of minutes,” Skylar Diggins said. “And I think both teams had an opportunity to win the [games]. I was proud of how my team just made big plays toward the end.”

After three matchups this season, no one knows UConn better than the Irish. However, Notre Dame can’t overlook the Huskies’ late bloomers in freshmen Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart, who have both stepped up during the NCAA tournament to provide more threats on the UConn bench.

Muffet McGraw will definitely look for Diggins to fill in any holes that Connecticut might create on Sunday in the semifinal matchup, whether it be on defense, rebounding, creating opportunities for her teammates, or putting the ball in the net.

Diggins averages more than 17 points and six assists per outing. Couple that with three other starters who average more than 12 points a game in Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd, and you’ve got a tough offense to stop.

More than anyone, the Irish know what that feeling is like, deep in the pit of their stomachs, that they have felt the past two seasons when they went home empty-handed after falling just shy of the national crown. And that very feeling will be one of the drivers that Notre Dame will use to ensure a different outcome this time.

“It would mean a lot – I saw this over and over – not only to me but to our team and our program, the city of South Bend who has been supporting me my whole life, the university, Coach McGraw,” Diggins said. “It would just mean a lot, so many things so much bigger than myself. And the opportunity is here now.”

It might be easy to sit back on their heels and have the mindset, “been there, done that,” in facing the Huskies yet again. That is the farthest thing from the Fighting Irish’s minds. Two opponents lie in the way of a national title, and the first is Connecticut. And the Irish is just as focused on this game, if not more so, as any other throughout the season.

“When you’re playing against them, you can’t just focus on them and the front of their jersey,” Diggins said. “You have to really focus on what you want to do and executing your game plan. And I think we’ve been the aggressors for the most part the last couple of times we played them. And I think that helps us, when we’re just worried about us, what we’re going to do, and what we need to do to win the game.”

                                 --Summer McKesson, NCAA.com

Why UConn will win

In a series between such closely matched teams that know each other so well, it comes down to one thing.  Who has the greater will to win?

On Sunday, Connecticut will.

The Huskies have lost to Notre Dame three times this season, and each meeting has come down to who can finish off the job. UConn won’t let it slip away on Sunday. They have been working on making clutch free throws and taking care of the basketball in late-game situations.

“The little things are what seem to kill us in those games, in those big games and finishing them off,” sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “There are spurts in the games before where we played great and we did everything we were supposed to do. But when it came down to the wire, it just didn't end the way we wanted it to.”

Missed free throws and errant passes have not been erased from UConn’s memory, but have been used as motivation to improve those aspects of the game.

“We've been working really hard to prepare for this game and building our confidence,” senior Kelly Faris said.  “I think we're in a much better place than we were before.”

“We've been working on making sure that doesn’t happen,” Mosqueda-Lewis said.  “We've been putting ourselves in positions like that in practice and being successful. And if it comes down to that [Sunday], then we'll be ready.”

In addition, UConn’s freshmen, especially Breanna Stewart, are playing like seasoned veterans at this point in the season. Stewart has been on fire in the postseason, averaging 17.3 points in seven contests and earning Bridgeport Regional Most Outstanding Player honors.

“I think they've come a long way,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “And they're playing really great basketball right now. I think Stewart, to be the most outstanding player of the regional tournament, that's quite an accomplishment for a freshman.”

When the Irish and Huskies step on to the court at the New Orleans Arena on Sunday, there will be no mystery or crazy game plan. It will just be another classic battle in an epic war.

“I think because we are so familiar with one another and we play each other so often, it comes down to who has a greater will to win, and who’s going to step up and make those though plays,” junior guard Bria Hartley said. 

“We know what Notre Dame runs … we know it better than our own offenses.  I think it’s going to come down on who’s going to make those big plays and who’s going to step up.”

This time it will be UConn.

                                            --Amy Farnum, NCAA.com