Months before the UConn women’s basketball team arrived in Columbus, Ohio for their Final Four matchup against Notre Dame, the Huskies took on the Irish in Hartford on Dec. 3. The game ended up being one of UConn’s closest of the season, as the Huskies rallied back from an 11-point deficit to win 80-71 for their sixth-straight win over the Notre Dame.
As UConn and Notre Dame get ready to add another chapter to their storied rivalry, I took a look at back at their matchup from earlier this year to see what made it so close.
Notre Dame’s Big Three
It may not be as feared or dominant as UConn’s foursome of Katie Lou Samuelson, Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier, but the Irish have a talented core of their own: Arike Ogunbonwale, Marina Mabrey, and Jessica Shepard.
Mabrey has had success against UConn in the past and did well to start in this regular-season meeting, scoring 15 of her 21 points in the first half. As Mabrey fizzled out, Ogunbowale picked up the slack, scoring nine second-half points and finishing with 19 on the day. The Irish will ride these two for a chance at a win, and both will need to hit their 3-pointers to create space and stretch the UConn defense. Mabrey is shooting 40 percent from deep this season while Ogunbowale is shooting nearly 38 percent.
Shepard, who transferred from Nebraska and was somehow immediately eligible to play this season, has been stifled by UConn in the past but was more of force with her new team, scoring 10 points with eight rebounds and two assists. With better talent around her in Mabrey and Ogunbowale, Shepard won’t face as many double teams in the post, giving her better looks offensively, easier opportunities for offensive rebounds and more time to find open shooters like Mabrey and Ogunbowale on the perimeter. Much like how UConn’s success relies on Samuelson, Collier, and Williams, the Irish will need big games from these three to take down the Huskies.
The Fighting Irish Frontcourt
Like South Carolina, Notre Dame has the size to dominate the Huskies in the post and will try to use that to their advantage. Combine their size with their six-player rotation and it’s likely that Muffett McGraw will try to slow down Friday night’s game. Three in that rotation - Shepard, Kathryn Westbeld, and Kristina Nelson - are taller than 6-foot-2.
On Dec. 3, the ND forwards combined for 20 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against the Huskies. To have a shot at beating UConn Friday, they’ll need a big performance from Shepard and for Westbeld and Nelson to hold their own on the boards.
Unlike South Carolina, which tried (and failed miserably) to beat UConn by only beating them down low, Shepard, Westbeld, and Nelson have perimeter shooters around them in Mabrey and Ogunbowale, which will be critical to their upset bid. Westbeld herself can even step out and shoot the 3, shooting 35 percent this season.
As UConn fought back from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit, they did so without two of their best players. Williams missed the entire second half due to migraines and Samuelson missed the whole fourth quarter after re-aggravating an ankle injury that she originally suffered against Cal. With two of their main offensive weapons sidelines, the Huskies relied on Azura Stevens (17 points), Crystal Dangerfield (12), and Collier (15) to complete the comeback.
Notre Dame has been plagued by injuries in its own right. With four players sidelined due to torn ACLs or other season-ending injuries, the Irish have just seven healthy scholarship players. Guard Lili Thompson, who scored nine points against UConn earlier this year, is one of those injured players after tearing her ACL in conference play.
Barring injuries, it’s highly unlikely the Irish will see a UConn lineup without Williams or Samuelson at any point Friday night, let alone in crunch time. The two All-Americans should be ready to go the distance and try to lead the Huskies to their 12th national championship game appearance.