After dominating DePaul at the XL Center on Wednesday, UConn travels to South Bend, Indiana to take on the top ranked Fighting Irish in a Final Four rematch as part of the Jimmy V Classic. Both UConn and Notre Dame enter the game undefeated, and it is the sixth time the rivals have met as the top two teams in the AP poll. UConn has the advantage in their head-to-head meetings, 35-12.
This game will be the toughest test the Huskies have faced so far this season, and will give us a better picture of where they stand right now.
After their first test against a ranked opponent on Wednesday, Coach Auriemma was pleased with UConn’s defense and rebounding, and also noted that the team “shot the ball exceptionally.”
The Huskies will look to carry that momentum into the Notre Dame game, but the Irish have more size on the floor than DePaul and will challenge UConn more on the glass. Notre Dame is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, averaging 17 offensive and 30 defensive boards per game. Defending the Irish will also be more challenging, as the Huskies’ lack of size will create more challenging defensive match-ups.
To put it bluntly, this Notre Dame team has many advantages heading into the match up.
“We’re playing a team that’s really good on their home court. They’re experienced, they’re bigger than we are, they’re deeper than we are,” Auriemma said.
Notre Dame returns four of five starters from last year’s national championship team. They also return Brianna Turner, who was in the starting lineup prior to being sidelined with an ACL injury last season. Their entire starting lineup has experience playing in the type of environment that this game draws.
Turner, Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young and Jessica Shepard all average over 14 points per game. Ogunbowale leads the team at 25.3 points per game, but Young is the most efficient score at 1.29 points per attempt.
Scoring efficiency will be an advantage for the Huskies in this contest. All five UConn starters are in the top 10 percent in the country for points per scoring attempt (Young is the only starter to do so for the Irish), and shoot over 50 percent from the floor.
As a team, the Huskies are also shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc so far this season (10th in the nation). Notre Dame, on the other hand, is not a great 3-point shooting team. However, their fifth starter Marina Mabrey just returned to the lineup from injury and will likely increase their threat from beyond the arc.
For the Huskies, Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield all have the big game experience like the Notre Dame lineup. However their two new faces in the starting lineup, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams, do not. So far, Walker and Williams are both averaging in double-figures. Williams is also the most efficient scorer on the team, adding 1.44 points per attempt. Walker played well off the bench in last year’s regular season contest with the Irish, securing some key rebounds. UConn will look for her to have a presence on the glass again this year.
“I want them to play great,” Auriemma said of Walker and Williams. “I want them to feel what it feels like to be in that kind of environment.”
The Huskies will need them to play great to beat the Irish, in what will be a competitive game against a tough team, with a tough crowd.
“Every defensive possession means a lot,” added Auriemma. “Every offensive possession means a lot.”
Heading to South Bend as the underdogs for the first time in years, UConn will look to upset the Irish and reclaim the No. 1 spot in the polls next week.
“We’re going out there to win the game,” said Auriemma.
Keys to the game for UConn
Defensive Rebounding: Limiting Notre Dame on the offensive glass is going to be essential to the Huskies’ success in this one. The Irish, who shoot just under 50 percent from the floor, have corralled 44 percent of their own misses so far this season. On Thursday against Iowa, they were well above their season average with an offensive rebounding rate of 56 percent. UConn needs to limit their second (and third) chances at the basket.
Defending in the paint without fouling: Notre Dame scores over two-thirds of their points from 2-point range, and another 20 percent of their points from the foul line. The Irish’s guards, Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young, are both especially good at drawing the foul. They both head to the line on approximately 20 percent of their two-point attempts. The Huskies will need to be able to contain them without fouling.
Christyn Williams and Megan Walker: As the first six games of the season have indicated, UConn can count on Samuelson, Collier and Dangerfield to be great every game. However, to get the win over competition like Notre Dame, the Huskies need their whole starting lineup to perform well. Everyone in the Irish’s starting lineup has experience performing on a big stage. Walker and Williams don’t have the experience, but they’ll need to play as if they do for UConn to win.
How to watch:
Where: Purcell Pavilion, South Bend, Indiana
When: 4 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network
REMINDER: Want to watch the game with some fellow Huskies fans? The UConn Blog is having a FREE game watch for the UConn-Notre Dame game at The Press in Hartford at 187 Allyn Street. Hope to see you all there!