It seems like yesterday that the 2018/2019 ND Women’s Basketball season tipped-off. The defense of their National Championship was underway. There were so many questions to be answered and lessons to be learned. One of the early hype games early in the season was a game in December. That game was against the Huskies. It was game nine to be exact, and the Irish were working through the non-conference portion their schedule.
The Notre Dame Women’s basketball rivalry with UConn dates back to the days when these two teams played a Big East schedule. UConn’s main rival was the Tennessee Volunteers led by the late Pat Summitt. Coach McGraw and the Fightin’ Irish first played UConn January 18, 1996. Though the stats will show that UConn leads in the series, the team doesn’t dwell in the past, but they live and play in the present.
The Final Four Matchup
The Fightin’ Irish and the Uconn Huskies are two well matched teams. Notre Dame comes in to the contest with a 34-3 record. Notre Dame lost to UConn 89-71 in December. They lost early in conference play to UNC Tar Heels 78-73, The they lost three games later to the Miami Hurricanes 72-65.
I like to say, “with every loss, there is a win.” The win in the loss to UConn was about self control and how it needs to be maintained. The game within the game was about composure, Arike Ogunbowale got caught up in the mind game when words were exchanged between Ogunbowale and Coach Auriemma. Arike was promptly “T’d” up and from there the rest was history. Coach Mcgraw’s response after the game. “We lost our poise. That was unexpected. “I was disappointed to see the veterans that we have not rise to the occasion. We’re a better team than we showed.” A few days later a public apology would be made by Coach for the actions on the court.
Even in the tournament the Fightin’ Irish have played some close games. The difference between those games, the team did not lose focus, they kept on task. Coach McGraw knew when to call the time-out and get the team refocused. Coach definitely knows what makes her team respond.
If history tells us anything, it’s that a team eliminated previously, always wants to come back and right a wrong. This time, it’s Notre Dame on the the title defense side, and UConn wanting back what was taken from them last year in the semifinal. UConn had an overall record of 35-2 and went 16-0 in their conference. For the most part plays in a conference in which they dominate. The two losses came against Baylor in which they lost 68-57. They also lost at Louisville 78-69. This year was the first time in many years that UConn did not come into the NCAA Tournament as a #1 seed. Though ND had three losses including one to UConn, Strength of schedule will always prevail with the committee. Once your in, all that matters is winning.
Breaking Down The Teams
Katie Lou Samuelson is one of the keys to the Huskies offense. A three-point threat and a good free throw shooter. In her last game against Louisville she scored 29 points, 7-12 from distance, and 8-9 from the free throw line.
Napheesa Collier is a rebounding machine. The 6’2″ Senior can block passes as well. In her last game Napheesa tallied three offensive rebounds as well as 10 defensive rebounds. Collier also added two blocks and six assists.
UConn rotated six players in the 40 minutes of play. That is stamina. The trouble behind that is the fact with foul trouble that can evolve in the Irish paint, UConn doesn’t want to have to sit one of their “bigs” early. This is where cooler heads need to prevail for Notre Dame.
Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Marina Mabrey, Brianna Turner, and Jackie Young. That’s a stacked line-up in the WNBA. Each one contributes in a different way. Arike, aggressive player, not going to be denied when she has the ball in her hand and will run coast to coast if needed to score points. Jessica Shepard, she owns the paint. Layups, ball handling, offensive and defensive rebounding, she is the total package. Marina Mabrey, she needs commands coverage. If she is left open or double covered, points are going to go on the board on the offensive end.
Brianna Turner, finally gets her chance in the Final Four. The ball rejecting machine on defense and keeper of the rim on offense. Turner is the total package as well. Jackie Young, also referred to in conversations as the “silent assassin.” One minute teams thinks they have her contained, 40 minutes later she has 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists. It is difficult to cover all five players. The key for this team is composure and patience. This squad will be hard to match anytime in the near future. This is a unique set of players for the University of Notre Dame.
Pre-Final Four Interviews
“It seems like yesterday was November 14th or 15th, whatever it was, that we had our first game. I can’t believe how fast the season goes anymore. You try to explain it to our players, it’s just a whirlwind. Especially the last three weeks, how quickly it flies by.”
“But for me mostly, you know, this weekend, this NCAA tournament, really has been about these two guys sitting next to me here in the sense that when you have two seniors who have accomplished everything that they’ve accomplished in their four years at Connecticut, every kid in America wants to be rewarded by going to the Final Four. Who doesn’t? Every kid in America wants to win a national championship. Who doesn’t want to win a national championship?”
“You can’t say that some kids deserve it more than others, because that’s not fair. But when you write down all the questions and you say, Why do these two deserve to be here? You can’t find a reason to say, Well, they don’t. So for me it’s all about the fact that regardless of how it goes this weekend, these two are ending their career exactly where it needs to end. I’m really, really, really thankful for that. I really am.”
Media Question: “Obviously you’re very familiar with them. It’s probably the best rivalry right now in the sport. It’s basically like Rocky 50 in movie references. What is the theme about tomorrow? There’s years you’ve played them four times in a year, sick of each other. What is the mindset of playing a team you played in December, beat them, what, handily? Is it just an opponent or is it Notre Dame, back to what it used to be with you two?”
Coach Auriemma: “I think mainly tomorrow’s game is more about two really good teams that are playing. I don’t think the other 49 times we played them really has any significance in tomorrow’s game. It’s just that in the last number of years, every time we’ve played them it’s been a lot at stake, even a stupid regular season game like in December, it’s 1 versus 2. One of us is 1, the other one is close to being 1. It’s a big game. That version of game of the year, game of the century.”
“I think that’s cool because, you know, sports needs that kind of rivalry. We used to have that with Tennessee. Now we have it with Notre Dame. I think it’s cool.”
“Of course, it’s exciting and it means a lot. But I don’t think tomorrow’s game has any more significance whether you want to win or not just because it’s Notre Dame. Just because we beat them in December doesn’t have anything to do with tomorrow night.”
“Same thing with Louisville beating us. It didn’t really affect the outcome of that game. I just think tomorrow’s game is a completely different game. I always tell our players whenever we win a big game in December, I say, Listen, we’re going to have to get a lot better fast. I’m assuming the teams we play against, they’re getting a lot better.”
” And Notre Dame is a lot better today than they were in December, no doubt in my mind. I mean, I think they’re the best team in the country. I don’t think anybody else is even close. Baylor. But I don’t think anybody else, I think, can match Notre Dame when they’re playing their A game. They just overwhelm you, man, at every position.”
“I think being anointed as the No. 1 seed early in the season is not a blessing. It’s hard to get here. I don’t know that everybody knows how hard it is to get back here. I’m proud of what this team has accomplished. We’ve overcome some things. We’ve been very persistent. Very blessed to be back here.”
“For all three players, can you talk about what you learned from the December meeting with UConn, why you expect this game to be different.”
Brianna Turner Response: “For the first game, I think we just learned a lot about ourselves, how we need to focus on our defense, not get too riled up, making sure we’re staying focused throughout the 40 minutes, not letting up no matter who the opponent may be or what’s happening during the course of the game.”
Arike Ogunbowale Response: “I think definitely just after that game we really learned how to play with each other. Marina was injured for most of the games before that, that was our first game as a starting five. Definitely just it’s a process to be able to learn how to play with five All Americans.”
“I think over the course of the season, that game really helped us.”
Jessica Shepard Response: “Yeah, I agree. I think just developing team chemistry since that game’s happened. I think just kind of refocusing as a team.”
Media Question: “The discussion obviously is about the rivalry. What did you learn from that first game when you played in December? What did you learn that will help you tomorrow?”
Coach McGraw Response: “I think any time you lose, you go back and you look at absolutely everything that went on in the game, offense, defense. What did we do wrong, substitutions, man, zone, what did we play. You break down the whole game, try to find some things.”
“That’s why you play those games early in the year, because you want to know what your weaknesses are, how teams are going to attack you. You learn a lot from them.”
“We did some good things. We did some good things at both ends of the floor. We just didn’t do enough good things. I think we didn’t take advantage sometimes of the mismatches that we had. So we were able to work on that. Our defense was not as good as I thought. We’ve actually been working on that for the rest of the year. I think you take away little things like that.”
“[Christyn] Williams had a huge game. We probably weren’t as prepared for that. So now we’re aware of what she can do. I think we learned a lot. Same as we did for the other two losses we had.”
The UConn vs Notre Dame game will be televised from Amalie Arena in Tampa FL on ESPN2 at 9 P.M. EST as the second semifinal game or you could listen to the play by play on the radio here.
Cheers and Go Irish! ☘🏀⚡