Notre Dame Top UConn, Can Repeat as Champs

Notre Dame’s dream of back-to-back national championships is still alive after its 81-76 victory over arch-rival Connecticut in the Final Four on Friday. Similar to the first game of the national semifinals doubleheader, it had all the drama and suspense you could want, with big shots, momentum runs and lead changes galore. Let’s take a look at how the Irish advanced to their second-straight national title game:

The glass, especially offensively

Notre Dame outrebounded Connecticut by a staggering 54-37 margin and hauled in 22 offensive rebounds. Both of these squads are great rebounding teams, each ranking in the top 10 in Division-I in total rebounds. The Irish came in with an edge on the boards, entering 25th in the nation in offensive rebounds per game, but their average was 15 per outing. They well outpaced that Friday, and it made all the difference.

Forwards Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner were monsters on the glass. They combined for 28 rebounds, 15 of which were offensive. Both were extremely active all game long at getting and maintaining inside position, and there zero quit in either player.

For obvious reasons, it’s very difficult to win when you get outrebounded to that degree. It’s that much more difficult when you’re giving your opposition 22 second-chance opportunities, particularly when you have players like guard Arike Ogunbowale on the other side poised to decimate you. No matter how well you defend, you simply cannot give this Notre Dame team that many offensive rebounds and expect to win. Your defense is will not be able to recover that many times in scramble mode off second-chance possessions, and that’s precisely what happened.

Turner was on another level

Ogunbowale will grab more headlines because she’s the team’s premier scorer, and that’s not to say she doesn’t deserve it. She exploded in the second half, and Notre Dame would not have won if not for her offensive performance in the final 20 minutes.

But Turner was the best player on the floor Friday. She scored right around her 14.4 points per game average with 15 and completed a double-double with 15 rebounds (six offensive). Her impact was felt perhaps even stronger on the defensive end. Turner set the record for the most blocks in Notre Dame history during the game, and her performance was great evidence why. She registered five swats and altered so many more, terrorizing Huskies who dared enter her paint.

Following defensive breakdowns, it was Turner who would clean up the mess, most notably in the final minute of the game when Notre Dame had a three-point lead, 76-73. Forward Napheesa Collier received a pass on the opposite block after guard Christyn Williams blew by her primary defender and Turner had to rotate to the other side of the lane to help. Turner was tasked with guarding two players on the play: she had to rotate to help on Williams, but that left the window open for Collier at the rim. With excellent positioning and athleticism, Turner turned, recovered and batted the ball out of Collier’s hands before it could get to the backboard, then had the wherewithal to grab the loose ball and get it to a guard within moments. It was a massive play to secure the game for Notre Dame but also a microcosm of the thorn she was in UConn’s side all night long.

She was also too much of a load for Connecticut to handle inside. She pulled down loads of crucial offensive rebounds and passed decently out of the paint, including a combination of both that led to an open look from three for guard Marina Mabrey with under five minutes to play that locked the game up at 66-66. Turner drew lots of fouls, and most importantly, she capitalized at the line, going 7-of-8 from the charity stripe, five of those makes in the fourth quarter.

“My mindset was UConn’s season was going to end tonight no matter what it took,” she said immediately after the game. “If I was going to get a rebound, scoring, boxing out, playing hard D, we were going to get the win.”

Samuelson found her rhythm, but it took too long

Samuelson is UConn’s premier offensive weapon on the perimeter, and her 18.5 points per game are important for her team’s scoring. In the first half, she only took five shots, all misses, and only one of those looks was at the rim. Notre Dame did a good job of keeping her from getting the ball in dangerous positions and had her off her game for the first 20 minutes.

In the third quarter, she turned it up, going 5-of-6 and making two triples for 12 points, and it was an important aspect of UConn’s 54-52 lead heading into the fourth quarter. From there, the Irish only allowed her five more points, and in all kept her in relative check. Samuelson finished with 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting and went 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. Not a bad showing overall, but UConn’s offense struggled in the first half without her scoring. Who knows where the score could have been by the end of the night had she got going sooner.

Not only does Notre Dame not stop, it gets stronger as the game continues

This wasn’t the first time the Irish started a game cold and heated up gradually as the game wore on. It should be expected at this point, but it happened again, and it saved them.

Neither team shot well in the first half. Connecticut went 13-of-36 (36.1 percent) and Notre Dame shot 14-of-40 from the field (35 percent), and the sides combined for 3-of-25 shooting from three. As the game opened up more, both teams started to shoot better, but Notre Dame really turned it on. The Irish made six triples in the second 20 minutes, and Ogunbowale found her stroke. She didn’t start much better than Samuelson, heading into the halftime break with two points off a long jumper in the second quarter. The other 21 of her 23 points came in the second half as she shot 6-of-11 from the field and got to the line for all six of her free throws, sinking them all. She was attacking with a fever not seen in the opening half, and she settled into what UConn’s defense was and wasn’t giving her. Both teams were in and out of difficult zone looks throughout the game, which certainly had an affect on the relative slow shooting start for each side.

But once Ogunbowale and the rest of the Irish cracked the code, it was off to the races. Connecticut led 64-55 with a little under eight minutes to play. Notre Dame scored 26 points in fewer than eight minutes to eventually reach 81, a scoring rate that is near impossible to keep up with, even with a nine-point cushion to start with.

Looking forward

Notre Dame brings a dynamic set of scorers and great set of rebounders up against an elite defensive team and set of twins towers inside in Baylor. Are Turner and Shepard going to exert their will in the same way against center Kalani Brown and forward Lauren Cox and they did against Connecticut? It will be crucial that they do, and the battle on the boards is likely what will make the difference when those two teams do battle for the sport’s premier prize Sunday.

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