Since the turn of the decade, the battle between the UConn Huskies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has unquestionably been the premier rivalry in women’s college basketball. The two teams have met eight times in either the Big East Championship or Final Four since 2011, with UConn holding a 5-3 edge.
The No. 1 Huskies and No. 3 Fighting Irish face off once again on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Hartford. While this game doesn’t have the same implications as years prior, there is still plenty to play for.
“The one Sunday isn’t for anything. It’s not an NCAA Tournament game, but it’s one more game we have against a really good team,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I think it’s the best team we’ve played at this point, no question about that.”
The high praise is certainly warranted, as the Fighting Irish have a bevy of talent, particularly on offense. Like UConn, there’s no one star player to key in on. Instead, they can attack from anywhere on the floor.
“They’re definitely quick and they have weapons from all over the floor so we can’t focus on one person,” Katie Lou Samuelson said. “We have to be ready to play all five positions.”
With so many threats on the court, the task of defending a single player becomes even more difficult. Auriemma noted they will have their hands full with Arike Ogunbowale, who’s averaging 20.7 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game and 2.7 assists per game this season.
“Arike is impossible to defend one on one,” Auriemma said. “She’s just a really tough matchup for anybody. She’s tougher than any guard and she’s quicker than any forward.”
Notre Dame also features 6-foot-4 Nebraska transfer Jessica Shepard. This season, she’s averaging 13.0 points per game 8.9 rebounds per game while adding versatility to the Fighting Irish lineup.
“Getting Jessica Shepard has added an awful lot to their team,” Auriemma said. That’s the kind of player that makes things happen for them because she’s a ball handler for them at the high post and she’s someone that can do a lot.”
Despite being two of the best teams in the nation, neither squad will be at full strength. The Huskies will be without Batouly Camara, however Katie Lou Samuelson is expected to play after missing the last four games with a foot injury.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, lost freshman Mikayla Vaughn to a knee injury recently on top of missing All-American Brianna Turner and Mychal Johnson for the season.
“It’s unfortunate when you think about kids in college and their injuries, for whatever reason things go in cycles,” Auriemma said. “I feel terrible for kids and I know Mikayla on their team is as heartbroken as anybody would be and it’s just unfortunate.”
Even with the game missing some star power, it is still one of the most highly-anticipated matchups of the season, with less than 100 tickets remaining in the 15,564-seat XL Center as of Friday afternoon.
“We’re definitely excited and I know no matter who we put on the court, everyone’s going to be ready to go and whoever is going to step up, we’re going to go to them,” Samuelson said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m excited.”