Let’s get ready to rumble! Heavyweights UConn, Notre Dame prepare to battle for Big East Championship

According to Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, all is right with the women’s basketball world, for at least one night.

“When it comes to the Big East tournament and the two best teams that should be playing tomorrow night, the two best teams are playing tomorrow night,” he said. “Sometimes in a tournament it doesn’t work that way and there are upsets, but in this case tomorrow night the number one and number two teams in the Big East are playing and as it should be. They deserve it and so do we.”

Last night in Hartford, top seeded Notre Dame and second seeded Connecticut rolled through semifinal games versus West Virginia and St. John’s, respectively, to set up a third match up between the two powerhouses. Notre Dame won both of the first two games.

It was only a week ago that Notre Dame not only handily defeated the Huskies 72-59, but seemed to break their spirit as well. It was at the press conference post game that Auriemma declared he did not care who won the Big East tournament, that his team was not worthy. It can be difficult to tell when the coach is being entirely honest, or whether he is trying to take the pressure off his team, but he did expound on that after the avenging of the early loss to the Red Storm.

“I said it didn’t matter if you win the Big East tournament or not, I don’t know that I feel any different right now,” opined Aurimmea. “I think it’s more about getting back that Connecticut mentality that you’re talking about. That’s what last night and tonight and tomorrow night hopefully will be about getting back to who we were. Getting back to what we think makes us good. We had lost that. So to me, that’s a lot more important than losing the Big East regular season championship.”

For the Irish, a win would mean further validation of their incredible success this season, and their status as the best team in the northern part of the country.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to compete for a Big East championship,” said conference player of the year Skylar Diggins, who has thrived versus the Huskies this year, averaging 21 points per game. “We mentioned, all of us have, what that would mean to us as a program and to coach McGraw.”

Notre Dame presents a myriad of problems for their opposition. It begins with their version of the “big three” – Diggins, and seniors Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters. Novosel brings a Katie Smith-like intensity and skills to the court, aggressively attacking the rim but hitting jump shots as well. Peters may not score like the other two, but she is a ferocious rebounder (averaging 11.0 per game versus Connecticut this year) and her screen setting frees all of the Notre Dame shooters for great looks at the basket.

Perhaps no one on the Irish is playing better offensively in the tournament than Kayla McBride. A do-everything sophomore who missed last season has taken time to fit in, and is thriving now. She is averaging 14.5 points thus far in the Big East tournament.

“After sitting out last year it took me a little longer to get back in rhythm,” said McBride. “But I think right now in this stretch I really need to step it up for my teammates and just do what I do best, and that’s get the ball in the basket. I think it’s just taking advantage of my opportunities. My teammates gave me the ball, so I think I just like the atmosphere, and I was just letting it go.”

Diggins praised her sophomore teammate McBride as well.

“She makes herself very available to the high post area. I mean, you can give it to her when she has a mismatch. She has a great handle. She can create her own shot. She’s a player that’s really shown what she has and she’s a great shooter, but she also can bang around in there with the bigs. I think she’s doing her job and playing her role to a tee.”

They will be facing a Huskies team that has struggled with its offensive identity of late, but has really turned up the intensity on defense during the Big East tournament. UConn held Rutgers to 34 points in the quarterfinals, and St. John’s to 43 points in the semi-finals, on 31.3 percent shooting.

Husky center Stefanie Dolson talked about the importance of UConn’s defense.

“I think with our team, the most important thing is defense, and that’s really what sparks our offense, which we did a great job tonight of getting steals and pushing the ball up the court. I think we’ve come out with the right mindset of really being aggressive.”

Dolson played big on offense as well on Monday night, hitting on ten of twelve shot attempts and all three foul shots, for a game high 23 points. It became easier for Dolson to score inside, with Big East Freshman of the year Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis hitting from outside. Mosqueda-Lewis finished with four three-pointers and 22 points herself, backing up her claim from the day before that the Huskies were a “different team” in the tournament.

“I just know how my team is. I know we’re strong, and I know we’re looking to head in a new direction. We’re looking to be a more confident team. And I knew coming out today we weren’t going to let anything stop us today.”

Unfortunately for the Huskies, what has not changed is the point production from Caroline Doty and Kelly Faris. Both played excellent floor games versus St. John’s, but Doty has only scored six points and Faris has scored eight through the two games played in the tournament. When you add that Tiffany Hayes has only scored nine points thus far, that is not sufficient for the Huskies to win the title.

For UConn to defeat Notre Dame, they will need to have more scorers than just Dolson, Mosqueda-Lewis and Bria Hartley. When Connecticut took Notre Dame to overtime in January, they had four people score at least nine points and seven different players scored. Last week, when the Irish won handily, only five Huskies scored, and only three scored at least nine.

Also, the rebounding edge is important, as both teams like to get out and run. In the overtime game, UConn was able to rebound with the Irish, with both teams finishing with 43 rebounds. However, in the second game Notre Dame dominated the boards. Peters had fifteen, and the Irish outrebounded the Huskies 42-31, a substantial margin. Nineteen Notre Dame rebounds were on the offensive end.

It should be a great game, with a lot of intensity. Both teams are playing for pride. UConn not to drop a third game to one team, two on their own court in Hartford. Notre Dame has been playing the “lack of respect” card since last week’s regular season finale. The Irish have dominated the Big East season, winning regular season title, player of the year, and defensive player of the year. One thing for sure, Auriemma does not like looking up at another team ahead of the Huskies.

“It makes me angry that we’re not the favorite, because, you know, that’s where we’re supposed to be,” he said. “We always are. Why would you not want to be? Don’t you love when coaches and players say all the pressure’s on them? There is no pressure on us. We can just go out and play. There is no pressure on us. Every time I read that, I can’t wait to beat that team by 30. We’ve got nothing to lose. Really? Then why are you coming out here and playing if you’ve got nothing to lose? So I don’t like that underdog stuff.”

“When you’re a real underdog, that’s great, and we might be,” continued Auriemma. “But for that game tomorrow night, we are. We are on the other bench. We’re wearing the wrong uniform. We’re in the wrong locker room. So, yeah, everybody expects Notre Dame to win. They’re talented. They’re experienced. They’re really good. They play well together. They’re tough, physically and mentally. They’re exceptionally well coached.”

Then a smile crept across his face.

“We’ve got nothing to lose.”

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