The UConn Huskies and Notre Dame Fighting Irish are the biggest rivals in women’s basketball – that is no secret. Tempers flared during their last matchup when the Huskies beat the Irish 89-71 on December 2.
Senior Arike Ogunbowale, who famously hit the game-winning basket in last year’s Final Four against UConn, had a bit of a meltdown during the regular season matchup. She exchanged words with UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and got tangled up with point guard Crystal Dangerfield several times during the tightly-contested game.
“It’s not a part of the game plan,” Dangerfield said of Notre Dame getting rattled. “Because we obviously just want to focus on the game and make sure that we’re doing everything possible, everything right. But if it happens as a by-product, I mean, we’re glad because then they are not focused on what they should be doing.”
Ogunbowale said she learned a lot about her team since the last time they played UConn.
“I think, definitely, just after that game we really learned how to play with each other,” Ogunbowale said. “Marina (Mabrey) was injured for most of the games before that, that was our first game as a starting five … it’s a process to be able to learn how to play with five All Americans. I think over the course of the season, that game really helped us.”
Freshman Christyn Williams was not a part of the team during last season’s Final Four loss to Notre Dame, but she made her presence known during the regular season win against the Irish when she exploded for a season-high 28 points.
“I just remember watching the Final Four game last year and I just remember being hurt for my future teammates,” Williams said. “So for me to have the opportunity to play in a game like that, I was just really excited. That’s why I came to UConn – to play in those games.”
Notre Dame will certainly pay attention to seniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, but junior Jackie Young said they cannot focus on just one particular Husky.
“They’re a great team – lots of great players,” Young said. “Napheesa has been playing really well, Katie Lou’s been playing really well since she’s been back and had a great game the other day. They are just a great team and very versatile. On any night, somebody else can hurt you so you can’t just focus on one player. I think that’s what helps them a lot, is that they have a lot of different strengths on their team.”
The Fighting Irish are able to score at will, as well. Ogunbowale leads the team in scoring, averaging 21.5 points per game. However, she is not the only threat. Jessica Shepard, Young and Mabrey each average over 12 points per game, while Shepard leads the team with 10.2 rebounds per game.
“It’s going to be huge,” Dangerfield said of the team’s defense. “Coach has been like ‘oh we’re just going to outscore ‘em, not going to worry about it. There is going to be no defense played.’ But, you know, that’s a big part of the team, once you get to this point in the season because they always say defense wins championships. We are going to have to buckle down on defense.”
This game will mark the 50th time these programs have played against each other, with the Huskies leading the series 39-12. But Auriemma said those games in the past will not matter when they play again Friday night at 9 p.m.
“I think mainly tomorrow’s game is more about two really good teams that are playing,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think the other 49 times we played them really has any significance in tomorrow’s game. It’s just that in the last number of years, every time we’ve played them it’s been a lot at stake, even a stupid regular season game like in December, it’s (No.) 1 versus (No.) 2. One of us is 1, the other one is close to being 1. It’s a big game.”
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said there is not one particular aspect to UConn that her team will focus on.
“Really there’s so many critical points,” McGraw said. “I think rebounding is always key for us. If we can defend and get a rebound, that’s going to help our transition game. That’s probably, maybe the biggest key.”
UConn has played its fair share of close games this season, including two losses in the regular season. Collier said playing in close games has helped them learn to play in high pressure situations during the tournament this season.
“It definitely does prepare us,” Collier said of playing tight games. “As much as it sucks to lose games during the year, it does give you that experience. We’ve had more close games this year than we have in all my years combined. Again, that experience really does help you because you’re not in that position for the first time on the biggest stage in the biggest game.”
Seniors Collier and Samuelson will battle in their last Final Four. Samuelson said she is excited to represent UConn for one last weekend.
“It’s kind of unbelievable in some ways because it feels like the UConn jersey is one we’ve been wearing forever,” Samuelson said. “It seems like while you’re playing here, that’s never going to end. You always are going to play another game, have another practice. The fact that it is kind of the end of the road, we just want to go out and give everything we have because we know this could be one of the last few chances we get to wear the UConn jersey on our chest.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com