Huskies Vs. Irish
No. 1 Notre Dame presents physical, aggressive challenge
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.
Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale celebrates during overtime against UConn in the semifinals of the 2018 Final Four.