COLUMBUS – UConn and Notre Dame traded punches for 40 minutes Friday night in the women’s basketball national semifinal. Kia Nurse’s steal and score with 10 seconds remaining forced the two teams to go one more round.
But in the end, it was the Irish that advanced to the national championship game with a 91-89 victory, as an overtime buzzer-beater from Arike Ogunbowale sent the Huskies home in the Final Four for the second consecutive season.
It was a rough start for the Huskies, as they found themselves down 15-6 six minutes into the game. The struggles would continue for the remainder of the quarter, leaving UConn with a 24-14 deficit after one. The Huskies shot 6-20 from the field and 2-10 from the 3-point line, committing six turnovers to Notre Dame’s two. The Irish shot 58.8 percent from the field in the quarter.
“I think in the first quarter, they came out and made a couple of shots, got out in transition and defensively got some stops,” Nurse said. “I mean, they got up on a bit of a run.”
UConn (36-1) trailed by 13 points before Katie Lou Samuelson hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Before Friday, the Huskies had not trailed by more than 12 points all season.
Beginning with that Samuelson buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter, UConn regained control with an impressive 30-6 run over the next nine minutes, including a 14-0 run at the end of that stretch. Azurá Stevens led the charge with 10 points and seven rebounds.
“It was just a grind back-and-forth the entire game, and it was just a battle,” Nurse said. “I think… there were so many times they could have put us away, and we clawed and clawed and clawed our way back into it and made big play after big play.”
Samuelson’s game-high 13 points and Stevens’ 10 led UConn to a 41-34 lead at halftime. After scoring 24 points in the first, Notre Dame (34-3) committed seven turnovers and scored just 10 points in the second quarter.
Stevens was a force in the post for UConn off the bench, doing whatever she wanted offensively and altering shots defensively. Stevens finished with 19 points on 8-12 shooting and added eight rebounds and three blocks. She was one of two UConn players to come out of the game with a positive plus/minus.
“For her first year playing for us, I thought she was amazing all year long,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She’s come a long, long way.”
The Huskies fell behind again in the third, but they took the lead at the end of the quarter and held on for much of the fourth, bringing their lead to as much as seven with under six to play. But Notre Dame continued to fight and a 17-5 run over five minutes gave the Irish a five-point lead with 21 seconds remaining.
Notre Dame sophomore guard Jackie Young scored nine points in that span, leading the Irish in big moments as she did all night. Young finished with a game-high 32 points on 10-15 shooting.
“Jackie Young was spectacular… I thought Jackie Young was the difference tonight, obviously,” Auriemma said. “We knew what Arike was going to be able to do, we thought we’d do a good job on her and we’d do a good job on (Marina) Mabrey. But Jackie Young was too good for us.”
Down five with 21 seconds, Crystal Dangerfield passed up an open layup to dish it to Napheesa Collier, who nailed a 3-pointer to bring UConn within two. After a Notre Dame timeout, Nurse deflected the inbounds pass toward the backcourt and finished with a game-tying layup.
Another Irish turnover gave UConn the ball with three seconds and a chance to win, but Williams’ last-second attempt wouldn’t go.
“For us to make the plays that we made to tie the game in regulation then have a chance to win it and to tie the game in overtime, I mean… that’s what Connecticut basketball is all about,” Auriemma said. “But they made one more big play than we did tonight.”
In overtime, UConn scored just five points in the first 4:22 to find itself down five with 38 seconds to play. Collier hit another clutch jumper to pull the Huskies within three, and two missed free throws from Ogunbowale opened the door and a Dangerfield 3-pointer tied the game once again with 27 seconds left.
Notre Dame made the final possession count, as Ogunbowale made up for her missed free throws by draining a step-back corner jumper over Collier with one second on the clock. Ogunbowale scored 27 points in the game, including the cold-blooded shot sent the Irish to the championship and the Huskies back to Storrs.
“I wanted to show my Mamba mentality,” Ogunbowale said of her game-winning shot. “Kobe Bryant (was) here (in attendance) so that’s what I tried to channel.”
UConn finishes its year two wins shy of perfection and a national championship. Throughout the season, Auriemma has preached that last year’s loss to Mississippi State was a learning experience for his team that hadn’t experienced much losing. After another Final Four heartbreak, he’s not quite as optimistic.
“Sometimes you have to be exposed to this and fail when it’s all on you. It’s a great learning tool,” Auriemma said. “But I’m a pretty smart guy. I don’t need to learn this s— two years in a row.”
Josh Buser is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.