TAMPA— In the clash of the titans, the UConn women’s basketball team fell short 81-76.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Huskies seemed poised to defeat last year’s national champion Notre Dame and return to the championship game after missing it for two straight seasons. UConn was up by nine with 7:52 left in the game after senior Napheesa Collier made a two-point field goal. The Husky fans at a sold out Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay began to taste victory.
“We did feel confident in that moment,” Collier said after the game. “Then after that, we weren’t making…the points we needed to and maintain the lead and extend the lead.”
After that Collier make however, the squad would go on a scoring drought for over two minutes. With 4:25 left, Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey made a 3-pointer to tie the game.
“We said we had to get defensive stops,” Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale said of her team’s mindset being down by nine. “I think we really, as a team picked up our defense. We were scoring, but we weren't giving stops. We were trading buckets. Once we started getting stops, started getting scores, that's when we went on a run.”
UConn would get the lead back off a Samuelson layup with 1:43 left, but after that the Fighting Irish took over. Collier attempted to make a layup in the paint with 49 seconds left, usually a guaranteed shot for her, and was blocked by Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner.
The Huskies were forced to have to foul after that and saw the game slip away as Ogunbowale made her free throws. UConn did not concede the win at any point and played until the buzzer sounded.
After the game, Samuelson said that her team didn’t make the big plays that were necessary to win the game.
“We needed to step up, make big plays, get stops,” Samuelson said. “They just made more big plays than we did”
The first three quarters of the matchup were very back and forth with 26 lead changes throughout the entire game. Samuelson was scoreless in the first half, but she knew going into the second half that she was going to have to make an impact.
“I think he didn't have to say anything specifically,” Samuelson said of head coach Geno Auriemma’s halftime message to her. “I know what I need to do better in times like that. I didn't do enough in that first half.”
In the third quarter, Samuelson exploded to score 15 points and provided a new spark to the Huskies offense. Another spark for UConn came from freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa who played significant minutes for the squad and contributed four points, five rebounds and a block. The 6-foot-4 Nelson-Ododa provided another tall body in the paint to assist Collier with Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner.
After the game, Auriemma said that they knew going into the matchup that they were going to have to make a bunch of shots to be able to pull out a win.
“We just weren't good enough tonight to do it,” Auriemma said. “I mean, it's not anything other than they were just better than us tonight. They were better than us when the season started and they were better than us tonight. They had more good players play better and contribute more than we did. That's just the way the world is. They deserved to win, and we didn't do quite enough to win. That's it.”
In the locker room, it was Dangerfield who appeared most emotional about the loss. She described how hard her team had worked behind closed doors to make it to the championship game for their beloved seniors. In her three years on the team, Dangerfield has never won a national championship something she said was very stinging for her.
“I grew up watching this program, all the championships they won, I wanted to be a part of it from day one,” Dangerfield said. “I was like ‘I wanna come here, I wanna be a part of it’-share that [feeling].
The most difficult part she said was how close the squad got to that coveted championship every season since her arrival.
“That’s what’s making it the most painful,” Dangerfield said. “You got so close, you put so much time into it, you invest into all of it and you fall short for a third time. You don’t have any words for it.”
For Collier, the friendships she made at UConn is what made the most lasting impact on her life and she had some advice for her teammates going forward into next season.
“Don’t take anything for granted,” Collier said. “It goes by really fast, way faster than you think…”
While Dangerfield has faith in her seniors as they head into the next phase of their lives, she wished she could have done more to end their season with a bang.
“They’re going to go on to the WNBA and do some great things and I’m excited for them but I just wanted to send them off with a championship,” Dangerfield said as she held back tears.
At the buzzer Notre Dame’s Ogunbowale led all-scorers with 23 points including 14 in the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, I mean, I don't think it was any mystery who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter,” Auriemma said. “That's the way they've always played since Arike has been there. She still has to make those shots and she did. She's an almost impossible matchup one-on-one, you know. We knew that going in. We knew that they were going to score X-number of points. We knew we had to make shots and we didn't.”
Samuelson led UConn with 20 points and freshman Christyn Williams tallied an impressive 19. Collier recorded her 25th double-double of the season off of 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Going forward, Dangerfield knows she will have to step up even more to lead the squad in her senior season but she has faith in her teammates.
“We’re gonna be young but we’re gonna be hungry,” she said of next seasons players.
The Huskies ended their season 35-3 and were undefeated in conference play. Notre Dame will play Baylor on Sunday night at 6 p.m. for the national championship.
Mariana Dominguez is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Photos by Charlotte Lao, Photo Editor/The Daily Campus and Nicholas Hampton, Associate Photo Editor/The Daily Campus