TAMPA, Fla. – It’s not often (or, quite frankly, ever) horse racing comes up at the Women’s Final Four, but anyone who has sat in on a Geno Auriemma presser knows to always expect the unexpected. Midway through a Q&A session with reporters on Monday afternoon -- and following a question about the point in time when UConn regularly was able to recruit game-changing players -- Auriemma stopped to ask the media a question about the sport of kings.
“Any horse racing fans in here?” Aureimma inquired.
A few hands went up.
“Anybody know who [retired jockey] Steve Cauthen is?” Auriemma continued, referring to the man who was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1978 after riding Affirmed to the Triple Crown.
Again, a few hands were raised.
“Who did he ride?” Auriemma asked.
“Affirmed,” said two or three voices above the air conditioned humming.
“Right, he rode Affirmed,” Auriemma said. “Anybody know who the jockey for Alydar [Affirmed’s great rival] was?”
Now there was silence.
“Hard to remember, right?” Auriemma said. “I have no idea because he didn't win any of those three races. That's why people become famous, because they ride the best horses and they coach the best players.”
Auriemma smiled. He knows he has the best players here and it will be an uphill climb for the sport’s current Alydar -- Notre Dame -- to win on Tuesday night in the national title game (8:30 p.m., ESPN) at Amalie Arena. It’s the second consecutive year the teams are meeting in the title game -- UConn won 79-58, in Nashville, Tenn. a year ago -- and the fifth straight year the rivals will meet at the Final Four. Here are the five biggest questions that will determine the outcome:
1. Can Notre Dame match UConn on the offensive end?
Historically, UConn and Notre Dame always rank in the Top 5 in scoring offense, but UConn separated itself from the rest of the country this year. The Huskies average a nation-best 89.9 points; Notre Dame is fifth at 80.6. If you want a sense of each team’s efficiency, UConn leads the nation in field goal percentage at 54.3 percent while Notre Dame is second but well back at 49.6. Defensively, the Irish have the tougher task on Tuesday: UConn can score from all five positions on the floor, with all five starters averaging double figures. Every member of UConn's starting five has 100 or more assists this season. Notre Dame’s best shot to upset UConn is if they push the score into the 80s. (The Irish are 233-6 since the 1995-96 season when they score at least 80 points in a game.) Said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw: “It’s simple: We have to score. They are a great offensive team – and a defensive team as well – but they go on runs and if you can’t withstand them or match them with one of your own, you have no chance. I don't know that you can stop them. I think they're going to score. So the question is can you keep up with them by scoring as much.”
McGraw’s star player put it this way: “You have to be the aggressor,” said junior guard Jewell Loyd. “If they are the aggressor, it is going to be a long game for us.”
2. How much consideration should be given to UConn’s 76-58 win over Notre Dame on Dec. 6 in South Bend?
Both sides have improved since that game. Notre Dame played without freshman forward Brianna Turner, a 6-3 athletic post player with a high basketball IQ who was out with an injured right shoulder. Turner looks like a future first-team All-America but it’s hard to see Notre Dame making up 18 points. Also keep in mind that one of UConn’s top players – junior point guard Moriah Jefferson – had her worst game of the season with zero points on 0-of-8 shooting from the field, five turnovers and two assists. Jefferson fouled out of the game with 5:20 left. If you go inside the numbers for the game, you’ll find UConn held Notre Dame to a season-low 31.4 percent from the floor and outrebounded the Irish 52-34. They were far and away the tougher team that night. “What I most remember it is got to a point where we were down 10 in the game and it still felt like we were in control,” said UConn junior forward Breanna Stewart. “We really were the aggressors, and we came in there and we wanted that game more.”
Stewart said Notre Dame played different defenses against her in December, including straight-up man and a triangle in two. There were also very physical with her and senior guard and three-point specialist Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. If Notre Dame is looking for one glimmer from the game, the Irish did lead 28-18 lead with 10:13 to go in the first half before the roof caved in.
3. How can Notre Dame stop Stewart?
They can’t. She’s going to get hers so Notre Dame has to make it as difficult as possible for her. Assistant coach Niele Ivey, who is charge of scouting UConn for Notre Dame, said the goal is to limit Stewart’s touches as much as possible, switch defenses on her, and attempt to be physical. “She is the best athlete in the country so you try to be physical and limit touches,” Ivey said. “Players like that will get their points but what you hope is that they don’t score in crucial situations or there are hard 2s and 3s as opposed to wide open shots. We want to make it a hard night for her.”
Stewart, the AP Player of the Year, has won back-to-back Most Outstanding Player awards at the Final Four and has a knack of playing big in the biggest games. But Notre Dame needs to be equally worried about Morgan Tuck, UConn’s 6-foot-2 sophomore forward. She scored a career-high 25 points on 12-of-19 shooting against Notre Dame, along with nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals.
“It's disappointing that the media decides ahead of the season who the best players are going to be,” McGraw said. “Because I think she's [Tuck] their second best player. I thought the game that we had with them she was the best player on their team. She really did so many great things. She's incredibly overlooked on that team. It’s her versatility, because she can go inside and out. She's really worked on her perimeter game. She's tough to defend around the basket, but you've got to guard her at the 3 point line. They have so many weapons you want to try to find somebody that you don't have to guard, and she would be the wrong choice if you decided not to guard her.”
4. How does UConn stop Notre Dame?
UConn is not a great defensive team and at times they have to hide average defenders such as Mosqueda-Lewis and reserve guard Saniya Chong. Some of their guards get beat off the dribble but they have shot blockers such as Stewart to bail them out.
UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph is in charge of the scouting Notre Dame, an assignment she’s had since she joined the staff in 2008. She knows that Notre Dame will get off a lot of shots but where the game will be won for UConn is how tough the Huskies make those shots. “It’s fun to watch them play, I must tell you,” Ralph said of the Irish. “They are smart, well coached, and I see tons of similarities with us. We both have Princeton-style type of offensives and the kids who make reads and come off screens as opposed to running plays whereas other teams you are scouting a play.”
Notre Dame All-America junior guard Jewell Loyd scored 31 against UConn (on 27 shots) in the earlier meeting and like Stewart, she’s going to find a way to get her points. That makes Turner the X-Factor for Notre Dame. She’s the first freshman to lead the nation in field goal percentage (68.6%) and also established herself as a defensive force with 85 total blocks and 7.8 rebounds per contest (in 26.4 minutes per game).
“She gives them a presence inside and specifically Morgan Tuck had a great game for us the first game we played,” Ralph said. “Brianna is their leading offensive rebounder and she brings the level of athleticism they need in the paint against bigger players. She definitely gives them a spark that will change this game.”
5. Does everyone being nice to each other in Tampa have some larger meaning?
Last year McGraw did not mince words when she was asked about her relationship with Auriemma."We don't have a relationship," said McGraw, bluntly. That came about 75 minutes following a press conference in which McGraw said the Notre Dame-UConn rivalry had gone "a little away from the civility" it had experienced when the two programs competed against each other in the Big East. McGraw was then asked if "hate" was an accurate word to describe the current status between the programs. "I think that is a fair assumption," she said.
Since then the two coaches have made amends. They have chatted amicably on the recruiting road, and had nothing but praise for each other this week. The players are also feeling the love. “Last year was like Gladiators,” Loyd said. “It was heated. It was like you would walk down the hallway and kind of turn your head [when you saw a UConn member]. This year everyone is friendly in the sense that everyone is laughing and smiling. It might be the weather, I don’t know. But it is not as hostile, which is good. Geno is a great guy and Coach [McGraw] of course is great. When you have two competitors like that, it is going to be heated at times.”
McGraw admitted to SI.com on Monday that the combination of being undefeated, the desire to get her seniors a victory in the title game, and losing star center Natalie Achonwa to a season-ending ACL injury against Baylor in the Elite Eight dialed up the tension last year. “I remember talking to Geno after the game for a couple of minutes and him being very complementary,” she said. “I saw him a couple of weeks later recruiting and everything was fine. I think it was all me. Losing Natalie Achonwa, the pressures of being undefeated, all the press attention, I think I had a lapse in judgment and I really regret that.”
Edge can be a weapon for some teams but this Notre Dame team -- which is very young -- is more chill than swag. McGraw said she wished her team had some of the edge that former players Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride brought to every practice and game but what this team does have is mental toughness, and we saw that during the final 16 seconds on Sunday night in the thrilling win over South Carolina. It’s been another incredible coaching job by McGraw but the result will be the same again.
UConn 78, Notre Dame 64