|NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH||UCONN HUSKIES|
One thing has become clear about Notre Dame and Connecticut: No matter how much they don’t like each other, in reality, they are somewhat mirror images of each other. Both are undefeated. Both have balance. Both have stars.
“The two teams are so similar.” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “If somebody were to ask me what's the biggest downside to playing these guys [Tuesday] is that we're just too similar. We do a lot of the same things.”
So why will Notre Dame win? Because the Irish have the intangibles on their side. They seem to want it more.
Look at what Louisville did on the men’s side last season. They lost a key player in Kevin Ware and turned it into their motivation to win a title for him.
That’s exactly what Notre Dame has done with Natalie Achonwa. She is their senior leader and was a vocal presence on the sideline Sunday. All of Notre Dame’s players came out in warm-up shirts with her nickname, “Ace,” and No. 11 on the back. They all want this for her.
What was Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas’ response to questions about how Notre Dame was able to outrebound the Terps, the third best team in the country in terms of rebounding margin, 50-21?
“They wanted it more.”
Every player stepped up in some way and improved their production in Achonwa’s absence, with five players grabbing at least five rebounds.
With the exception of last season’s Final Four, Notre Dame seems to have UConn’s number, too. The Irish have won seven of their past nine games against the Huskies, including two Final Four wins in the two years before UConn’s win last season. They are not scared of the name, like so many other teams in the sport are.
“We have never been intimated by them,” Notre Dame sophomore Jewell Loyd said. “Coach [Muffet McGraw] does a great job making sure we know who we are. We stay true to what we do. You should not be scared when you step out on the court. You are there for a reason.
“We have been playing basketball our entire lives. We are playing for Notre Dame, Natalie Achonwa, Coach, the seniors and our community back home; that is what we are more concerned about than their jerseys.”
Another big key to the game good be the first 10 minutes. UConn has made a bit of a habit of getting off to slow starts -- it trailed Stanford 22-16 early on Sunday, was behind Texas A&M 11-4 in the Elite Eight, and let 12-seed BYU hang around until the second half in the Sweet 16.
Notre Dame’s ability to score and crash the boards could cause major trouble for the Huskies if they fall behind early. And if they can get to those loose balls first and turn it into points like they did on Sunday, it will be the Fighting Irish cutting down the nets on Tuesday night in Nashville.
-- Eric Vander Voort, NCAA.com
In the biggest game of the year, with a national championship of historic proportions on the line, Connecticut will win because of what it does best: defend.
The Huskies are allowing only 47.3 points per game – the best scoring defense in the nation -- and they plan on utilizing their defensive prowess to slow down a Notre Dame team that is scoring 86.8 points per game.
“People have a hard time scoring against us, generally speaking,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. “We block a lot of shots. The best way to keep people from scoring is don't let the ball ever get to the rim. If the ball gets to the rim, it's got a 50-50 shot going in. Right? If it never gets to the rim, that's pretty good defense. That's been a big part of our defense this year.”
Auriemma’s not kidding about blocks; no one has ever done it better. This group, led by national player of the year Breanna Stewart (108 blocks), has amassed a single-season record 318 blocks.
Center Stephanie Dolson (6-5) and Stewart (6-4) provide an intimidating presence on the inside, and when Auriemma substitutes sophomore Kiah Stokes (6-3) into the lineup, it creates even more matchup problems for opponents.
“They have such great size,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “Kiah Stokes is playing really well this year. Gives them a nice lift off the bench. They have the big lineup that they play frequently with the three big posts, and that creates a lot of matchup problems for us.”
When Stokes is in the lineup, Stewart moves out guard the three, giving the Huskies length on the outside.
“I think Stewart's a real matchup problem for us,” McGraw said. “She's somebody that's hard to guard because of her inside-outside ability.”
The Huskies can be very physical, but do not get into foul trouble often, which will also be a factor in a game in which who goes on the attack first will set the tone.
“We are going into the game knowing they are very physical and are going to be very aggressive on the boards,” Dolson said. “We just have to practice and prepare mentally and be ready to throw the first punch and never back down. We have to be the aggressors and never let up at all.”
Stellar defense, size and physicality will be integral in the Huskies defending last year’s national title. But UConn has a couple of X-factors as well.
UConn’s men’s basketball team won the NCAA title on Monday night. If the women win, it will be only the second time in history a school pulled off the double (UConn, 2004).
And, the Huskies and Auriemma can make history by winning their ninth NCAA title, which would be the most by a program in women’s basketball history.
One more thing. Auriemma is 8-0 in NCAA title games. The Huskies will make it 9-0 on Tuesday.
-- Amy Farnum, NCAA.com