Irish, Huskies advance to set up mega-matchup Tuesday
To paraphrase a famous song by The Rolling Stones, you don’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need.
On Tuesday night, women’s college basketball fans across the world definitely will get what they wanted since the beginning of the new year: a national championship game brawl-for-it-all between undefeated juggernauts.
Notre Dame (37-0) and Connecticut (39-0) will renew their heated rivalry in what might be the biggest stage that women’s college basketball has ever had, as both teams vanquished its national semifinal opponents at the Women’s Final Four at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. For all of the match-ups between UConn and Tennessee in the late ’90s and ‘00s that whetted the appetites of fans constantly to the great players across the country that have graced the floor recently (e.g. Skylar Diggins, Brittney Griner, etc.), the Notre Dame-Connecticut matchup has exceeded them all in terms of the game’s most must-see spectacle. The two coaches aren’t the fondest of each other, their recent games between each other have produced instant classic after instant classic and these squads are squaring off in the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year.
In other words, you know what your plans are for Tuesday night: watch history in the making unfold in the Music City.
Here’s the recap of the two national semifinal games on Sunday:
Notre Dame 87, Maryland 61: Notre Dame aced its first exam without Ace.
In the first national semifinal, the Fighting Irish offensive juggernaut continued to lay waste to opponents, winning 87-61 over the Maryland Terrapins in their first game of the season without injured star forward Natalie Achonwa. After a nip-and-tuck first few minutes, Notre Dame started to stretch out the lead with almost near perfect execution of its Princeton offense, shooting over 54 percent in the first half on its way to a 17-point halftime lead.
Guards Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd were once again the team’s catalysts: McBride led with 28 points, while Loyd had a near double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds. But without Achonwa, who tore her ACL in her left knee in the Fighting Irish’s Elite Eight win over Baylor last Monday, the frontcourt had to shoulder more of the burden to keep the perfect season alive. And step up it did. Freshman Taya Reimer, making only her fifth start of the season and starting in place of Achonwa, had a stellar all-around performance: nine points, five rebounds, four assists and a block. Even more impressive was Markisha Wright, who posted career highs in minutes (23), points (12) and rebounds (nine).
Reimer sat early in the first half with an early foul as the moment proved to be a little too big at the beginning, but she settled down and got into a nice groove after she came back onto the floor.
“I think she just needed to breathe,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, who will coach in her fourth national title game. “When you get the adrenaline going, you get winded a little bit earlier. I think it was good for her to just relax a minute, talk again about how we’re going to front, what we’re looking for defensively, and keep focusing on the defense and rebounding.”
A sequence late in the first half seemed to finally knock the jitters out. After an offensive rebound, Reimer found a cutting McBride with a bullet pass from the right elbow for a layup and a 43-29 lead. On the next possession, Reimer faked screening for McBride, rolled to the basket and converted a layup after a pinpoint McBride pass towards the hoop.
“She’s [Reimer] perfect for this offense, because she can read screens,” McGraw continued. “She can move without the ball. She can read the defense. She sets great screens and she’s strong and physical and she’s fast.”
Wright’s career performance also garnered praise from the coaches.
“What a great day to bring it out,” McGraw said. “I think she’s been ready all year long. This is the moment she’s been looking forward to, the opportunity to get out there and play a little bit more than she has been. And she really took advantage of it.”
More important than the offense the frontcourt provided, the cadre of players inside did a number on Maryland’s All-America, Alyssa Thomas, who scored only 14 points, five below her season average. The first half was even tougher for Alyssa, who only had three more points (five) than she had fouls. Brionna Jones tried to single-handedly keep the Terps in the game in the first half, hitting six of her seven shots on her way to 12 points in the half and 16 points overall.
Connecticut 75, Stanford 56: For about 15 minutes, Stanford had almost three-fourths of the fans at the Bridgestone Arena on its side; they held a six-point lead against undefeated Connecticut, and not only were the Cardinal faithful in full throat, but most of the Notre Dame fans, well accustomed to rooting against Connecticut during the school’s run as Big East members, also became Stanford fans for a day. The neutrals in the building also were interested in seeing whether a monumental upset was in the cards.
But the perfect Huskies picked up their defense late in the first half and used the intensity on the defensive end to put away the Cardinal in the second half, as UConn cruised to a 75-56 win. Five players scored in double figures for Connecticut, led by national player of the year Breanna Stewart and her 18 points. Stanford came out playing like it had a chip on its shoulder and were able to settle into the game very quickly. Freshman guard Lili Thompson was the spearhead for the Cardinal and their perimeter attack, her play on college basketball’s biggest stage belying her relative inexperience. She made three consecutive jumpers in a four-minute span, and the last of those, her second three-pointer, put Stanford ahead 16-10 with 12:32 remaining. The spread was still at six with 5:39 to go, and that’s when the Huskies put the clamps on defensively, helped by the presence of reserve center Kiah Stokes. Stokes, along with scoring nine points, had four rebounds and had a big role in limiting Cardinal All-America forward Chiney Ogwumike to 15 points, 11 under her season average.
“We went with the bigger lineup, we have a few more options defensively that we could,” said Geno Auriemma, who will now coach in his ninth championship game and has won the previous eight times. “It allowed us to move Stewie [Stewart] onto a shooter and get some length out there. Kiah has been a real good defensive player and a shot blocker, and we trust her now. We didn’t in the past. But we do and we’re not afraid to put her out there in big moments. That’s the best game she’s ever played, I think, since she came to Connecticut.”
Connecticut held the Cardinal to just two field goals in the last seven minutes of the first half as the Huskies took a narrow 28-24 lead into intermission, but then exploded out of the locker room with a 16-3 run to begin the second half and effectively put the game out of reach. Junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had nine of those points in that run, and her three-pointer at the 14:12 mark gave UConn a 44-27 lead, killing off any hopes for an upset bid.
Ogwumike, the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer, was held to just 15 points and only made five field goals, with most of those coming away from the paint. Connecticut’s mixing up of its defenses included playing a 2-3 zone, collapsing on Ogwumike inside and forcing Stanford to try to score most of its points from beyond the arc. Stanford, who came into the game shooting almost 37 percent as a team from three, hit only six of their 25 long-range attempts.