Stop if you’ve heard it before: UConn and Notre Dame are facing off for the women’s national championship.
After meeting in Nashville last year for all the marbles, the Huskies and Fighting Irish are set for a rematch again. Last year, it was a battle of previous unbeatens, as Connecticut completed the dream 40-0 season by handing ND their first loss (37-1). Husky forward Breanna Stewart scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the 79-58 victory.
This is the fifth straight year the teams have played each other in the Final Four, with the sides splitting the previous four games. From the Maya Moore-Skylar Diggins battles to this year’s edition, the UConn-ND rivalry has become the best in the women’s game. In my interview with Breanna Stewart in July, the Husky star said, “My feelings about Notre Dame are that I respect their program because they have had a lot of success, but I don’t think I am surprising anyone when I say we do not particularly like each other.”
What are the key matchups? Who will cut down the nets? Here’s the full breakdown:
UConn- Geno Auriemma. 916-134 as Huskies coach.
Notre Dame- Muffet McGraw. 699-219 as Fighting Irish coach.
Key players for UConn:
Breanna Stewart- 6-foot-4 junior forward. Stewart was awarded the Wade Trophy as best player in the women’s game over the weekend in addition to being named AP Player of the Year, and she is expected to pull off the trifecta when the Naismith Award is announced tonight. The scary part of Stewart’s game is that it is constantly improving. Her 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds a game may be down from last year, when she averaged 19.4 points and 8.1 boards, but she’s played 165 fewer minutes than she did in 2013-14. The superstar from Syracuse is the best player in this game, and she’ll need to play like it against a strong ND team.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis- 5-foot-11 senior forward. Mosqueda-Lewis is the best three-point shooter in the country at 49.4 percent. Even when she’s not on her “A” game from long range (she only shot 2-for-7 from deep in last year’s championship game, 8-of-19 overall), she still manages to get her points and get the job done on the glass. She doesn’t have the benefit of quietly making an impact anymore either; Stewart is the best player, but everyone knows Mosqueda-Lewis can beat you as well.
Moriah Jefferson- 5-foot-7 junior guard. Jefferson is the conductor that makes everything go for Auriemma’s squad, with the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in Division I. She’s a lightning-quick point guard who can beat opponents off the dribble with ease and has shown much-improved decision making since her freshman year. Her scoring output has improved as well, from averaging 10 points on 57.5 percent shooting from the floor last year to averaging 12.4 points on 59.6 percent shooting this season. As Jefferson goes, the Huskies go.
Key players for Notre Dame:
Jewell Loyd- 5-foot-10 junior guard. Loyd is one of the top scorers in the country at 20 points a contest thanks to one of the smoothest jumpers in the game- when she’s on point. She didn’t have the best shooting night in Sunday’s Final Four semifinal matchup against South Carolina, going 9-of-24 from the field, but she managed to score 22 points to lead all scorers in the victory. The Irish need some more efficiency on Tuesday night, but as long as they are winning Loyd can be afforded some misses.
Brianna Turner- 6-foot-3 freshman forward. Notre Dame’s freshman phenom averages 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds along with 2.5 blocks a game. Like most of the Irish team, Turner is very efficient offensively, shooting 64.8 percent from the floor. The one knock on her game is that she’s shooting better from the field than she’s shooting from the free throw line; she’s a 60.5 percent shooter from the stripe. UConn’s forwards rarely miss the freebies, so that could be a major disadvantage for ND if Turner can’t get them to fall.
Taya Reimer- 6-foot-3 sophomore forward. Reimer improved in nearly every statistical category after earning more minutes and making the most of her opportunity. She averages 10.3 points a game but had 16 in the win over South Carolina after going 7-for-10 from the floor. Reimer and Turner make up a formidable frontcourt, and when the ball gets to them in the post, it usually results in two points.
Keys to victory for UConn: The Huskies’ win in last year’s title game was due in large part to total domination on the boards; UConn outrebounded Notre Dame 54-31, grabbing as many offensive rebounds (22) as the Irish had defensive rebounds. Two reasons for that advantage were that then-senior forward Natalie Achonwa was injured and could not play, as well as then-senior center Stefanie Dolson grabbing 16 rebounds. Neither of those players are in school anymore, so the rebounding battle should be tighter. If the Huskies gain that edge, it will go a long way in their quest for a repeat.
Keys to victory for Notre Dame: Guard Michaela Mabrey did her part to keep the Irish in last year’s game when she scored 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Notre Dame is going to need the 5-foot-10 junior to be an x-factor once again, like when she had 14 in the win over Baylor in the Elite Eight. It’s all hands on deck against UConn, so an underrated player like Mabrey has to shine and be productive. Also, defending Mosqueda-Lewis is going to be crucial. Stewart will get her points, but if you can shut down the best shooter on the team and make her a non-factor, your chance of victory goes way up.
Prediction: I look at it this way: Connecticut doesn’t even have to play their “A” game on Monday night- their talent and skill level overpowered the Irish last year, and this year’s edition isn’t too shabby compared to that 40-0 squad. Notre Dame needs to play their “A” game and then some to overcome the fact that they are simply not as skilled as Stewart and co. It will be a great game, but the Huskies will check title number ten off their list in Tampa. 70-63 UConn