HARTFORD – In perhaps the most intense rivalry game in all of women’s college basketball history, the No. 1 UConn Huskies welcomed the No. 3 Notre Dame Irish into their home to a sold-out XL Center Sunday afternoon—running them right out of the building, or at least, doing so in crunch time.
It took a humongous fourth quarter effort from the Huskies playing without Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams for much of the second half, but UConn rode an electric crowd to go on a 22-3 run in the last 7:29 of the game to come back and defeat Notre Dame 80-71.
Notre Dame’s impressive effort to keep the Huskies at bay in a rivalry game was all for naught. All the hustle balls that had gone in favor of the Irish in the first three quarters went UConn’s way in the fourth. Steals, offensive rebounds and blocks – they all went to the Huskies in crunch time.
The late run started with a Kia Nurse 3-pointer to cut the Irish lead to seven, before a steal by Napheesa Collier led to an Azurá Stevens layup on the opposite end. The Huskies continued to cut into the lead drawing on the energy of an increasingly influential crowd, and soon took the lead for themselves on a bucket from Stevens to make it 69-68 with 4:38 left in the game. The lead was their first since the score was 28-27 with 5:18 remaining in the second quarter.
“Some people kinda panic when you see seven minutes fourth quarter, there’s only seven minutes left,” Nurse said. “That is an eternity in basketball. I think we sat down in the huddle, we drew up a play and we said ‘Let’s run this one to a tee,’ and we kept running it, we kept running it. We ran it about ten times and we still got good shots off of it. And that’s where it kind of just turned around.”
As the Huskies stormed back, the crowd at the XL Center made itself known to Notre Dame. The fans were as loud as they had been in a long time, making it very difficult for the Irish to call plays and giving UConn’s rivals a second opponent to overcome in the key moments of the game.
“We wanted the crowd to be a factor in the game, but we didn’t give them a chance to be until the fourth quarter,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Once we did give them an opportunity, they did take over…In the fourth quarter, our crowd responded the way they always do when it’s a big game and a big moment…It was like the old days, it was like back in the old days. It felt good today.”
A big part of the comeback was the impact of Stevens and freshman Megan Walker, who came off the bench and provided all the hustle plays UConn (7-0) needed to win the game. Stevens scored 17 points on 7-12 shooting and added three huge offensive rebounds and two blocks. Walker only played 16 minutes and scored three points, but was as active as anybody when she was on the court, pulling down six rebounds. Each rebound was crucial to the Huskies’ success.
“It’s taken (Stevens) a while, but she’s gotten better and better every game since the first game,” Auriemma said. “And Megan, Megan has a lot of talent. She has a lot of ability, she can do a lot of things. And rebounding is one of them. And she proved that today. And she proved that she can make plays in this kind of a game, in this kind of environment.”
Samuelson, who had recovered enough from her midfoot sprain, played from the start against the Irish and played well. The junior guard/forward from California had a quiet 10 points in the first half and ultimately finished with a team-high 18 points, despite sitting out a majority of the fourth quarter after tweaking her ankle.
“I’m sore, but happy with how everything turned out and how hard my team fought back,” Samuelson said. “We stepped up and the team was doing a good job [without me] so it worked out.
Williams finished with just two points on 1-7 shooting, but suffered from lingering migraines that forced her to sit out and watch her teammates play the entire second half without her. In most UConn games, the absences of Samuelson and Williams may not be a problem. Against Notre Dame (7-1) on Sunday, their presence on the floor was missed badly at times.
Marina Mabrey, a thorn in the Huskies’ side just two years ago, was the X-factor for the Irish yet again. Mabrey scored 21 points for the game, despite averaging just 10.3 points per game going into Sunday’s matchup. The junior guard was stellar through the first three quarters, but fell off in the final frame. Mabrey finished 6-15 from the field and 4-9 from the 3-point line.
Collier led the Huskies early, using her array of moves in the post and improved 3-point shot to put in nine of UConn’s 22 first quarter points. Five more points from sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield at the tail end of the first quarter gave the Huskies a 22-18 lead heading into the second frame.
The second quarter was no walk in the park for UConn either. Notre Dame, led by Arike Ogunbowale, went on a 13-0 run in a span of just over three minutes, shooting 7-7 from the field in that time. Ogunbowale had all nine of her first half points in the last six minutes of the second quarter.
UConn couldn’t make up much ground in the third quarter, as Mabrey remained hot and Ogunbowale willed her way to the basket on a number of occasions. The junior guard wasn’t the most efficient scorer on the night, going 8-25 from the field, but hurt the Huskies time and time again with her ability to get to the basket, finishing with 19 points.
Still, Notre Dame had no answer to UConn’s relentless play in the fourth quarter, meaning the Huskies will remain undefeated for at least another game.
Next up, the Huskies will look to build on their best win of the young season as they go on the road to take on DePaul Friday night.