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What Went Wrong in UConn Women’s Basketball’s Final Four Loss to Notre Dame

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The Huskies fall short of the national title once again in a painfully familiar way.

UConn’s Gabby Williams (15) attempts to win the game at the buzzer over Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24).
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Friday night’s loss to Notre Dame in the Final Four looked remarkably similar to the Mississippi State game a year ago, right down to the final shot.

In two straight years, a seemingly invincible UConn team got punched from the get-go and stumbled in critical moments. The Huskies didn’t execute at a level they were capable of in the biggest game of the season, in part due to a great game plan by Notre Dame, but also because they didn’t handle pressure well down the stretch.

Here’s what ailed the Huskies last night in the upset loss.

Slow Start

The Huskies came out flat and they paid for it. After UConn scored the first basket of the game, Notre Dame responded with seven straight points, forcing UConn to play catch-up the rest of the quarter. As a result, they struggled to stay in a consistent rhythm offensively.

It also put the Huskies under pressure from the opening tip. They never looked comfortable to a point where they could just play their game. Every possession seemed to have a heavy weight to it, and frustration mounted as shots weren’t falling, things this team has rarely had to deal with much.

Struggles in the paint

As talented as UConn is, they don’t have as much size and strength in the low-post as other top teams do, even with the 6-foot-6 Azura Stevens and an excellent Napheesa Collier. It hurt them in a big way last night as Jessica Shepard controlled the paint, scoring 15 points with 11 rebounds — five on the offensive glass.

Jackie Young, who killed the Huskies all night with a game-high 32 points, had five offensive rebounds as well. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Notre Dame had 11 second-chance points to UConn’s five. If the Huskies could have corralled even one of those, it would’ve been a different game.

In the Elite Eight against South Carolina, A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings combined for 42 points. But those were the only two players that did any damage as the Gamecocks struggled to hit outside shots.

As Shepard controlled the paint, she was aided by 59 points from guards Arike Ogunbowale and Young. The Huskies need to collapse their defense into the paint, giving those two more room to work around the perimeter.

Size will continue to be an issue for UConn going into next season. They lose arguably their top interior defender in Williams and although they bring in the 6-foot-4 Olivia Nelson-Ododa, she shouldn’t carry the burden of improving this situation as a freshman.

Backbreaking Errors

UConn had 17 turnovers and made some of them in the game’s biggest moments. Notre Dame’s defense kept the Husky offense uncomfortable, and it paid off.

With 1:32 left in regulation, the Huskies trailed by just one point with the ball. But Gabby Williams turned it over, which resulted in the Irish taking a three-point lead. The next possession, Williams telegraphed a pass and again turned it over, pushing it to a five-point deficit. Katie Lou Samuelson fumbled a pass late in overtime that all but sealed the game.

Even though UConn eventually tied the game, it took a borderline miracle to do so. The Huskies couldn’t make lightning strike twice in overtime to overcome these mistakes.

The American Conference is Hurting UConn in March

UConn has never lost an American Conference game in the five-year history of the conference. The AAC is barely even putting up much of a fight. Even though UConn arranges a tough non-conference schedule, most of those games take place in November and December. At that point in the season, teams are still trying to figure out their identity.

But when the year starts to grind, especially when the stakes rise in late-February and early-March, the Huskies don’t need to bring their A-game every night. Even though they try to schedule non-conference games for February, those are still easy to get up for because they’re the one challenge on the schedule.

In a conference with better competition, the team will be challenged more often, more regularly, which is important.

But they don’t have to keep that level, even though Auriemma and his staff do their best to keep standards sky high despite the existence of Tulane/Tulsa road trips. UConn can’t simulate the pressure of Friday night, where a single mistake could make the difference. They are less unprepared for big games like Friday nights in part because of the conference slate.

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This loss will certainly sting for UConn fans for a while, especially since it looked so similar to the Mississippi State loss. The Huskies have now gone two consecutive years without a national championship, the longest stretch since 2011-2012.

Of course, that doesn’t make the season a disappoinment—the Huskies’ run of four-straight titles probably set expectations to a level that no team could really live up to.

“It’s very, very difficult (to win a championship),” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “For a long, long time, we made it look like it was easy, but it’s very, very difficult, as it’s played out the last two years.”

They also lose two incredible seniors in Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, who have the second most wins in program history with 148. They will be difficult to replace both on and off the court and UConn will need younger players to step up in order to continue their run of dominance.