DENVER – While a pair of virtual strangers are meeting in the second national semifinal game Sunday night when Baylor (38-0) and Stanford (34-1) hook up, the Big East Conference takes its 1-2 punch of familiarity west when Connecticut (33-4) and Notre Dame (34-3) hook up for the fourth time this season and eighth time in the last two in the NCAA Women’s Final Four opener at the Pepsi Center.
A year ago, Notre Dame turned aside three season losses to the Huskies in normal conference play and the Big East tournament to end UConn’s aspirations to win a third straight NCAA title when the Irish prevailed in the national semifinals in Indianapolis.
But coach Muffet McGraw’s group was unable to finish successfully two nights later when Texas A&M edged the Irish to win a first-ever national title.
Had Notre Dame won, it would have been a second national crown for the Irish.
Instead, it was back to the drawing boards to try to finish the job and Notre Dame lived up to its role as favorites in the Big East, beating UConn 74-67 in overtime, then 72-59 in the regular season finale.
A little over a week later however, the Huskies showed a new spirit and topped Notre Dame 63-54 to win the Big East tournament and headed into the NCAAs with a No.1 seed the same as the other three teams who advanced out of the 64-team field to here at the edge of the Rockies.
To hear both teams tell it, with such familiarity with every tendency and nuance by each of the other, hustling could be the X factor in determining whether the Irish will return to the title game or the Huskies will have a chance to go after their eighth NCAA title against either Stanford or Baylor.
“Hustle plays. Those hustle plays,” said junior Skylar Diggins about what was most costly to the Irish in the last meeting earlier this month. “They kept balls alive. They got offensive rebounds, Second-chance points. Transition. Just hustle plays for them. They outhustled us.”
Later Diggins was named to the 10-member all-America team of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association as was UConn’s Bria Hartley, Stanford’s sister-tandem of Nneka and Chiney Oguwmike, and Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims among the teams in the Final Four.
Looking back on the Huskies win over the Irish from the UConn side, Kelly Faris noted, “It was just each individual at different pivotal points in the game just stepped up and we didn’t rely on just one person.”
That was something the Huskies were able to do in past seasons with such all-Americans as Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery to lead the way.
Now, it’s been more of a committee effort with Hartley and freshman sensation Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis being the most consistent.
But at times center Stefanie Dolson has had her moments as has Hayes and Faris.
“I also think we just wanted it more,” Hayes said. “We were tired of losing to the same team over and over again.”
Stephanie Dolson of Connecticut drives on Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)
Besides Diggins, the Irish have other all-America caliber talent in Natalie Novosol and Devereaux Peters to pound the boards. Kayla McBride and Brittany Mallory are three-point threats.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who will also guide the U.S. Olympians in London this summer, focused on keys for his Huskies to succeed.
“In the game we played in the Big East championship game, we rebounded the ball and we kept them off the free-throw line,” Auriemma said.
“And I think if we do those two things well tomorrow night, then we’ll be in good shape,” he added.
“Notre Dame is maybe the best team in the country at getting to the free-throw line. And I would think that more than anything else that might be the key to the game; to make sure that they have to make shots rather than just give them free throws.”
Auriemma had his doubts midseason whether his Huskies could make it to their fifth straight Women’s Final Four. But after the conference tournament and their performance in the early going in the NCAAs, he said, “I thought we’ve got as good a shot at any anybody of winning this thing.”
Mallory said last year’s win changed the Irish outlook playing the Huskies.
“I think in previous years it was almost like they had Maya Moore, and it was a lot – they were a great team. And once we beat them last year in the Final Four, we kind of realized – it was an eye-opener for us – we can play with this team.”