TAMPA, Fla.—For the 18th time since the 2009-10 season, and the fifth straight year at the Final Four, UConn and Notre Dame will meet on the court. While Notre Dame has won seven of the last 10 games in the series, UConn owns a victory in the biggest game: last year’s title game in Nashville. They come together again on Tuesday night for a game that should be tighter than UConn’s 76-58 win over Notre Dame on Dec. 6 in South Bend. How did they get here? On Sunday night Notre Dame survived a nail-biter against South Carolina 66-65 while Connecticut broke away from Maryland in the second half for a comfortable 81-58 victory. Remarkably, UConn is seeking its second three-peat in the last 13 years.
Here are 10 observations from the semifinal games:
• I was curious how UConn coach Geno Auriemma would handle questions about Notre Dame after the Maryland win given he and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw have generally shown great respect for each other’s programs over the years, though they did have a stretch last year where things were very icy.
“They're a lot like us, and I think that's why they have had success against us,” Auriemma said Sunday night. “That they have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and as a program. We give them problems like other teams in the country don't and they give us problems like other teams in the country don't. I mean, Notre Dame beat us a bunch of times after not beating us at all for a long period of time. They beat us a bunch of times, and everybody felt there was something wrong with us and sometimes at Connecticut when you lose it's 'what's wrong with you,' not 'what's so good about the other guys.' Then they went to another league [ACC] and won every game there by 100. Everybody found out in that league, too, how good they really are. So Tuesday night is not going to be any fun, believe me. I'm glad we're playing in that game, but it's not going to be any fun. They're really hard to play against.”
• UConn sophomore forward Morgan Tuck continues to play like a first-team All-American. On Sunday she scored 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting along with nine rebounds and a block just for good measure. Auriemma said he spoke with Tuck about being bypassed for other players after the All-America teams came out.
“Obviously, there's a lot of really good players in the country, and I understand that you can only reward our team so much for what we did,” Auriemma said. “And the three that they've picked to be All‑American [Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis], I thought deserved it. And I think because we have Stewy, Morgan gets overlooked a little bit. We talked about it after the awards came out. And she was okay with it. On our team, if people had an opportunity to come to watch our practices, they would think that there's a lot of practices during the course of the season where you would think Tuck was the national Player of the Year. That's how good she is every day in practice. Not having played all of last year, obviously she wasn't in the conversation at the beginning of the season of who the top players in the country are. But a lot of kids have made first team All American that wish they were playing Tuesday night. So it all works out.”
• The second half was comfortable enough for UConn to give freshman forward Gabby Williams six minutes of play. She finished with three points and a rebound and didn’t seem like the moment was too big for her. You never know how many players you’ll need in a title game so that’s a nice benefit for UConn to get a bench player minutes in the semifinals.
• Auriemma is 9-0 in title games – a ridiculous stat. “If you play in enough of these games, you're going to lose at some point,” Auriemma said. “We've played in a lot of these and I hope we play in nine more while I'm at Connecticut and the thought we're going to go 18-0 in these games, if that happens, is ludicrous. Ludicrous. So we're going in on Tuesday. It's one game. One night for the season, really. So one game, one night, and the other nine aren't going to have any bearing on it. That's not going to mean anything, nothing. At least not for me. I'm nauseous already thinking about Tuesday's game.”
• McGraw admitted she did not expect this team would make the Final Four at the beginning of the year but the Irish have shown steel late in games, which is always the sign of a good program.
McGraw said the key moment of the season came against DePaul on Dec. 10 when Notre Dame overcame a late six-point deficit in regulation to force overtime and win 94-93.
“I think we were down six with a minute to go and somehow won the game,” McGraw said. “Coming off the Connecticut loss, I think that was our next game so for us to win that game I think gave us so much confidence. I felt we really responded well to that. Then the loss to Miami, I thought that was a tipping point. We could have gone either way at that point too. We played about as poorly as we could possibly play ... worst game of the year. We shot about 25% from the field and didn't defend, and so many things went wrong in that game. So I think to come back from that debacle and win out the rest of the year, I think that shows that we did get a lot tougher.”
• The final 21 seconds of Notre Dame’s win over South Carolina was one of the craziest in national semifinals history. It began when Notre Dame All-American junior guard Jewell Loyd tossed up an air ball in the lane with her team trailing 65-64. But running under the basket was junior guard Madison Cable, who caught Loyd’s miss in the air, and after one quick dribble, hit a turnaround jumper with 16 seconds left to give the Irish a 66-65 lead.
“I was just crashing anyway to try to get a rebound, and it bounced right where I was, and I turned around and had an open shot so I took it,” Cable said. “Luckily it went in.”
South Carolina obviously wanted its All-American junior guard Tiffany Mitchell to take the last shot and during Notre Dame’s timeout, McGraw subbed in backup guard Hannah Huffman, one of the team’s better defenders, despite Huffman having only played four minutes in the game. Mitchell got the ball off a screen and as she headed left, Loyd joined Huffman as part of a trap. The South Carolina guard initially tried to pass the ball to the post from the left key but Huffman deflected the shot and kept the ball in bounds. Mitchell wrestled control of the ball again and with the clock getting dangerously close to zero, she heaved a contested shot that had no chance of finding the net.
“What we wanted Mitchell to do was to kind of turn a corner, see if she can get an angle to get inside, maybe get to the basket,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “But they were hedging out and they made it difficult for her to have an angle to get to the basket. They did a really good job of shading her and forcing her outside of the paint.”
ESPN analyst Kara Lawson made the smart observation after the game that Mitchell should have gotten a shot up earlier so South Carolina could use its dominant size advantage to get a rebound and putback. The final sequence is going haunt South Carolina for some time, especially given the size advantage they had with Notre Dame starting forward Brianna Turner out of the game after fouling out.
• I consider McGraw one of the five best coaches in women’s basketball history and you saw why with the incredibly gutsy a move to bring in a guard (Huffman) who had played a couple of minutes to defend the biggest possession of the season.
“We thought that Mitchell would get the ball and there would probably be a ball screen involved,” McGraw said. “Because we were still in the triangle and two at that point, we talked about how important it was going to be for the person to come out and hedge on the ball screen. And I thought that was probably as good a hedge as we've had. But when I looked down the bench, Michaela Mabrey, not as well known for her defense. So we wanted to get a better defender in, and Hannah Huffman is somebody that played earlier in the game, guarded Mitchell, did a great job on her, and so we wanted to give her that opportunity. I think I told her I trust you and I have confidence in you.”
• Staley took another major step this year with her program and this inaugural trip to the Final Four will really pay off next season. The Gamecocks return their top three scorers (and four of their top six). Freshman forward A’ja Wilson, the SEC Freshman of the Year and the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country last year, is going to be a force as a sophomore after coming off the bench for most of this season. Wilson scored 20 points (on 8-of-11 shooting) in 24 minutes and filled up the stat sheet across the board (nine rebounds, four blocks, two assists). South Carolina’s finished with a record 34 wins, their second 30-win season in program history. They should enter the season as the No. 3-ranked team behind UConn and Notre Dame.
• Notre Dame freshman forward Brianna Turner is going to be first-team All-America very soon. She’s an athletic 6'3'' post player with guard skills in the open court and has an understanding of her game. She’s the first freshman to lead the nation in field goal percentage (68.6%). Turner has also established herself as a defensive force with 85 total blocks and 7.8 rebounds per contest (in 26.4 minutes per game). Against South Carolina, she had a sequence that highlighted her ridiculous potential. Leading 23-17 midway with under seven minutes in the first half, Turner picked up a loose ball off a missed South Carolina shot and when she saw no guard help, began dribbling up the court. She crossed over one South Carolina player, then sprinted down the spine of the court. She had a path to the basket, though it would have been impended by two defenders, and instead of going for the high degree of difficulty layup, she stopped and kicked a bullet pass to wide open Madison Cable beyond the three-point line.
Cable missed her shot but that sequence told you a lot about Turner’s basketball IQ and skill set. She’s going to be a serious factor during her career and keep this very much in mind: Turner did not play in the Dec. 18 game against UConn because of an injured right shoulder.
“She has amazing talent,” McGraw said. “She just wants to learn. She's a hard worker at practice. She can run the floor and rebound, and she can finish around the basket. I thought for her first Final Four, played extremely well defensively and offensively. And I know if you asked her she'd probably say she didn't play very well, but I'm so happy with her potential and where she's going to be.”
• Something worth noting that was very cool: With Mitchell sobbing on the court after the final sequence, a group of Notre Dame players came over to her, led by Loyd, to help pick her up and give her a hug. Great sportsmanship.