- No. 2 UConn was able to exorcise last year’s Final Four demons as star freshman Christyn Williams led the Huskies to a big victory over No. 1 Notre Dame.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The nerves inside Purcell Pavilion were evident from tip off. An electric crowd decked out in lime green shirts gave a welcoming roar to their Fighting Irish as the game began, but as soon as UConn jumped out to an early lead, it felt as if someone put the arena on mute.
Notre Dame came into Sunday’s matchup of the nation’s elite as the best team in the country. What they leave as after a humbling 89–71 loss to No. 2 UConn will all depend on how Irish coach Muffet McGraw and her staff can teach Notre Dame as the season progresses.
As for the Huskies, they were able to exorcise last year’s Final Four demons in large part due to Napheesa Collier commanding the paint and Christyn Williams looking all too pleased to be playing her first game against Notre Dame in enemy territory.
The freshman had a coming out party for the ages, using a series of shifty drives and shots to keep the Huskies in control while calmly commanding the offense for the entirety of the game. She finished with 28 points, which led all scorers. Williams displayed a sense of confidence that’s been evident long before she got to UConn.
“[Christyn] made a statement last summer that ‘we’re going to win a national championship my first year at Connecticut,’” coach Geno Auriemma said. “And she felt bad about saying it but she really believed it. Then someone asked her another question and she said, ‘I was born for this.’ Some people just know who they are and she knows who she is.
“I mean this is the worst she’s ever going to be, right? She’s a freshman, so she’s gonna get better from here.”
That message should send shivers down opposing coaches' spines. Williams always seemed to be ahead of the Notre Dame defense, whether it was streaking down the court for easy fast-break layups, working her way to the rim or pulling up off the dribble and watching the ball sink through the net.
In the biggest game of her short time as a Husky, Williams showed that she’s ready for the big stage and her confidence and knowledge of the moment is sure to bring smiles to fans around Storrs.
“I was coming in like this was just another regular season game so I just treated it like that,” Williams said. “We practice this all the time so just coming in and treating it like a regular game, I guess that’s confidence. [Auriemma] always talks about me being aggressive and stuff so that was just my main focus and I guess I exceeded it.”
Auriemma and the Huskies will also take note of the fact that it took until the early minutes of the third quarter for Katie Lou Samuelson to score her first points—a pair of free throws—and yet they still held the lead for much of the game. Samuelson began to heat up afterward but found plenty of other ways to contribute in the meantime, including tallying a team-high six assists and spacing the floor for her teammates. It speaks to her immense talent—and her recovery from a foot injury that plagued her all throughout last season—that she took nearly 22 minutes to score her first points and still ended up as UConn's third-highest scorer with 15 points.
“I thought Lou not having a great first half at all, and then coming back and playing as well as she did in the second half, that’s a positive because she wouldn’t have been able to do that when she wasn’t healthy, when her foot was bothering her and she couldn’t move," Auriemma said. "And today you saw a lot of things happening other than just standing out there and shooting jump shots.”
UConn needed Williams and Collier to step up Sunday, especially with Samuelson being held in check early on by the Notre Dame defense, and they delivered. The game never felt entirely decided but the Huskies’ duo made sure that UConn held the lead for all but one minute.
The Huskies began to pull away from the Irish in the fourth when buckets were hard to come by and the whole offense looked out of funk. When Arike Ogunbowale is missing bunnies at the rim, Marina Mabrey can’t seem to find her shot and both have moments where their emotions boil over, there’s not much hope of forcing a comeback.
There’s still plenty of season left for the Irish to bounce back, but they will no longer hold the vaunted “No. 1” next to their name. That honor belongs to UConn until further notice.