COLUMBUS – For the fifth time since the turn of the millenium, UConn and Notre Dame will face off in the women’s basketball Final Four. The Fighting Irish hold a 3-1 advantage in those games, but the Huskies emerged victorious in the most recent Final Four matchup on their way to the 2013 title.
No. 1 overall UConn (36-0) defeated No. 2 South Carolina 94-65 Monday night to win the Albany region and advance to its 11th consecutive Final Four. Senior Gabby Williams led the Huskies with 23 points, adding five rebounds and five assists to ensure her team got back to the stage where it fell last season.
That infamous overtime loss to Mississippi State, a loss the Huskies could avenge if both teams advance in their semifinal matchup, has undoubtedly been on the mind of each UConn player this season. But the Huskies haven’t let any thoughts of redemption get to them in the midst of their perfect season.
“I think that’s something that is not easily forgotten, something that you shouldn’t forget and you can use to a certain extent in the right way,” senior guard Kia Nurse said. “But I think at the same time, as we step on the court this time around and we go out, we’re focused on what we need to do to execute and be successful offensively and defensively against the Fighting Irish.”
Notre Dame (33-3), the No. 1 seed from the Spokane region, reached the Final Four by defeating No. 2 seed Oregon 84-74 on the back of an extremely balanced offensive approach. Four of the Irish starters scored at least 15 points in the victory, and the fifth, Jackie Young, added eight points of her own.
Notre Dame has struggled with injuries this season, losing as many as four role players to long-term injuries. The Fighting Irish have played with a thin rotation all season long as a result but have made due despite the shortage of a bench.
The last time UConn and Notre Dame met was Dec. 3, 2017, a game the Fighting Irish had in the bag for most of the contest before a huge fourth quarter run by the Huskies allowed them to erase an 11-point deficit and escape with an 80-71 win at the XL Center in Hartford.
“We have nothing to lose. All the pressure is on them,” Notre Dame junior guard Marina Mabrey said. “We just need to go out and play our game. Playing them before, we’ve lost once and I think this is our time to win. We gave that (first meeting) away. We just had a slight mental lapse and you can’t have a mental lapse against them. It hurt when it happened. But it’s over now and we had to move on.”
UConn was without Williams and junior guard Katie Lou Samuelson for parts of that game due to injuries, but Azurá Stevens scored 10 of her 17 points in the fourth quarter to lead the comeback.
Samuelson said the experience of a close game against Notre Dame in which they needed to claw back for a win would be useful for the national semifinal.
“We had a lot of mistakes that game and we could have done better, but the biggest thing we took away from it was we were down and managed to come back,” Samuelson said. “So we know if we get down, we have confidence in knowing we can make our way back.”
The Huskies and Fighting Irish have been at the top of women’s basketball for years and have played each other frequently dating back to their days as members of the Big East. The two teams don’t play as much in their current conferences, but the matchup remains very competitive, as evidenced by the game this past December.
“(Notre Dame) is a team that we’re very familiar with each other. We’ve played each other a lot throughout these years,” Williams said. “There’s nothing we can do that’s going to surprise them. There’s nothing they’re going to do that’s going to surprise us… Whoever plays better tomorrow is going to win.”
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said the result of Final Four games simply comes down to execution since every team has worked hard and deserves to be there at this point.
“We deserve to be here, just like the other three teams do. We’ve earned the right to be here, and we’re going to play a great team tomorrow night,” Auriemma said. “If we play better than they do, we’re going to win, and if they play better than we do, they’re going to win. It’s no more complicated than that.”
UConn and Notre Dame renew their rivalry for the 48th time Friday soon after the conclusion of the first semifinal between Mississippi State and Louisville, with the teams expected to take the court around 9 p.m. at Nationwide Arena.
Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @realchrishanna.
Josh Buser is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.