Huskies Vs. Ir­ish

No. 1 Notre Dame presents phys­i­cal, ag­gres­sive chal­lenge

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Kelli Stacy [email protected]

Sun­day’s UConn-Notre Dame game is an ex­er­cise in com­po­sure for both.

As the Notre Dame faith­ful boo loudly on Sun­day, Katie Lou Sa­muel­son will stand on the court inside Pur­cell Pav­il­ion soak­ing it all in.

Ev­ery deroga­tory re­mark, ev­ery slight thrown UConn’s way, Sa­muel­son will use to fuel her.

It might be game seven, and coach Geno Auriemma might’ve re­minded his team that the sun will rise on Mon­day whether the Huskies win or lose, but to Sa­muel­son and the rest of the UConn team, this game just means more.

It’s been eight months since Notre Dame bested the Huskies in over­time in the Fi­nal Four — eight months since Sa­muel­son scored 16 points and grabbed seven re­bounds over 45 min­utes de­spite spend­ing much of the season play­ing on an an­kle with lig­a­ments that were nearly all torn. In

that time, she has fully re­cov­ered, stud­ied the game film with Kobe Bryant and be­came the vo­cal leader of the team. On Sun­day, she and UConn will get a chance at re­venge.

“When you go to away games, you re­ally un­der­stand and feel like they hate UConn,” Sa­muel­son said, “and you can feel that en­ergy, and it kind of just mo­ti­vates me and kind of just gets me ex­cited to be in a place where, OK, you hate us? Well, watch what we can do to make you hate us more.”

Auriemma has tried to get his team to treat Sun­day like any other game be­cause it’s still so early in the season, but his play­ers have ad­mit­ted that it’s ob­vi­ously a lit­tle more mean­ing­ful. It’s the big­gest ri­valry in women’s col­lege bas­ket­ball, tak­ing the place of UConn’s ri­valry with Ten­nessee years ago, and for the first time in a long time, UConn was on the los­ing end.

With Notre Dame sit­ting at No. 1 and UConn at No. 2 in the rank­ings, Sun­day’s game will be the most sig­nif­i­cant game of the season thus far and per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant un­til the NCAA Tour­na­ment. Notre Dame re­turns four of its five starters, in­clud­ing Arike Ogun­bowale, who hit the buzzer-beater in over­time. She’s av­er­ag­ing a team-high 25.3 points this season.

As for UConn, the Huskies look vastly dif­fer­ent from the team that lost to Notre Dame in March. The Huskies lost Kia Nurse, Gabby Wil­liams and Azura Stevens to the WNBA. They’ll be start­ing sopho­more Me­gan Walker, who didn’t play in last year’s game, and fresh­man Christyn Wil­liams. Auriemma said he be­lieves the pair will be key against Notre Dame.

“I mean, we’re go­ing up there to win the game, and you want Christyn and Me­gan to do what­ever they have to do to help us win the game, what­ever that is,” Auriemma said. “I want them to play great, and I want them to feel what it feels like to be in that kind of a game in that en­vi­ron­ment against re­ally good play­ers. I want them to be in the sit­u­a­tions where they’re guard­ing some­body they can’t guard and that ev­ery de­fen­sive pos­ses­sion means a lot and ev­ery of­fen­sive pos­ses­sion means a lot.

“What comes out of it? … We beat them last year at the XL Cen­ter, and that didn’t do us any good in March, so I don’t think what comes out of this game other than I think that we do have two young play­ers that I’m anx­ious to see how they do more than any­thing. But, I mean, I want to win the game.”

The Huskies’ more ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers — Sa­muel­son, Napheesa Col­lier and Crys­tal Danger­field — say that the new starters are ready for their first big matchup, but they’ve been try­ing not to psych Walker and Wil­liams. They haven’t gone out of their way to de­tail what the in­ten­sity will be like or shared how badly they want to beat Notre Dame.

“They don’t re­ally talk about it, but I can def­i­nitely sense it,” Wil­liams said of the older play­ers’ de­sire to win. “You can def­i­nitely tell that they’re hurt from the [Fi­nal Four] game, of course. Why wouldn’t they be? I want to win it for them.”

In or­der to win the game, Wil­liams will have to do her part. Auriemma has lauded her re­bound­ing abil­ity, even go­ing as far as to say she could be the best re­bound­ing guard in the na­tion by the end of the year, and she’ll need to use that abil­ity on Sun­day. In break­ing down their keys to the game, UConn play­ers spent a lot of time talk­ing about win­ning the bat­tle of the boards and play­ing sound tran­si­tion de­fense.

DePaul coach Doug Bruno has faced both teams and said the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two lies most heav­ily in how much ex­pe­ri­ence the starters have. Fac­ing each team was tough for the Blue Demons, who lost to Notre Dame and UConn re­cently, and he could eas­ily see ei­ther or both in the na­tional ti­tle game.

“I just think Notre Dame’s prob­a­bly a lit­tle more ex­pe­ri­enced,” Bruno said. “I think both of th­ese teams can win the na­tional cham­pi­onship. ... Geno’s got some young play­ers out there. He’s got three vet­er­ans — three very qual­ity vet­er­ans — and the two young play­ers are go­ing to have to step up and play.”

The game will be phys­i­cal, full of emo­tions and driven by a UConn team fac­ing an un­fa­mil­iar un­der­dog role.

ANDY LYONS/GETTY

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogun­bowale cel­e­brates dur­ing over­time against UConn in the semi­fi­nals of the 2018 Fi­nal Four.

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