One of top rivalries resumes Saturday
Top-ranked and unbeaten UConn hosts No. 5 Notre Dame at Gampel Pavilion
Connecticut versus Notre Dame has become one of my favorite rivalry games in women's college basketball over the past few years. The contests have been close and there is always something at stake. And when you add the players' and coaches' distaste for one another, the game becomes even juicier. Here are some of the matchups within the game that will be worth watching:
Post play: Dolson versus Achonwa
Both UConn's Stefanie Dolson and Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa are vastly improved from a year ago. Dolson is in the best shape of her college career and showed in the Stanford game that she can play big minutes without giving in to fatigue. She is a reliable post scorer and one of the best passers on the Huskies (she ranks second in assists behind Kelly Faris). Dolson will rebound and is always ready to set screens to get teammates open.
Natalie Achonwa was the youngest women's basketball player at the London Olympics and her experience playing for the Canadian national team is paying dividends. She is playing with tremendous confidence this year and rebounding with a vengeance (14.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a game). Achonwa knows how to run the floor in transition and is always ready to finish a Skylar Diggins pass.
Dolson and Achonwa should guard each other for much of the game. I'll be surprised if the matchup is anything less than very physical.
Top freshman: Loyd versus Stewart
MORE ON JEWELL LOYD
How quickly has Notre Dame freshman Jewell Loyd adjusted to college ball? She's so far ahead of schedule that her future is spilling over into the present, Graham Hays writes.
Jewell Loyd's coming out party was against Baylor earlier this year. For much of the first half, the Notre Dame freshman was the best player on the floor. She made big shot after big shot on her way to 24 points, hitting four of five from the 3-point line. When Diggins struggled to score, Loyd stepped up as the go-to scoring guard on the team. She had the demeanor and game of a future superstar. Can she duplicate that in front of a hostile Gampel Pavilion crowd?
Breanna Stewart's entire freshman year has been a coming out party. Up until a week ago, she was leading the Huskies in scoring and rebounding. She has a versatile game wrapped inside a 6-foot-4 frame topped with the bow of a 7-foot-1 wingspan.
I'm still waiting for Stewart to take over a game -- but in fairness, UConn hasn't had any close games for her to take over. Stewart has struggled at times with physical play -- both Maryland and Penn State were able to body and frustrate her. (When she gets hit repeatedly, she has a tendency to stop moving.) Notre Dame has never been a team afraid to get physical with an opponent. We'll see if they can frustrate UConn's super freshman.
Point guard matchup: Diggins versus Hartley
This matchup will showcase two of the best point guards in the country. Teammates on last summer's 3-on-3 World Championship team, Notre Dame's Diggins is the better passer, but both players are fearless when it comes to taking big shots.
After missing time in the early season because of an ankle sprain, UConn's Bria Hartley's confidence and shot have finally caught up to where they were a year ago. Watching the two go head-to-head in the open floor will be intriguing.
Diggins didn't shoot well against Baylor (4-for-19 from the field, including 0-for-5 on 3-point attempts) but has the chance to showcase her skills again on the big stage. She has never shied away from big moments in the past and, I'm eager to see how she performs in the biggest game of Notre Dame's young season.
3-point shot versus three-point play
UConn is averaging an astounding 9.3 made 3-point shots a game while shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. Notre Dame has only made 46 3-pointers on the season, but the Irish have always been better at getting 3s the old-fashioned way. They've made almost 100 more free throws than UConn this season (230 to 138) and attempt more than 23 foul shots a game.
Getting to the line will also be important for Notre Dame because it will slow down UConn's pace and allow the Irish to set up in one of their multiple defenses.
Both UConn and Notre Dame pass the ball very well in the half court. Their assist numbers are almost identical (UConn averages 21.8 apg to Notre Dame's 21.2 apg). Defensively, both will try to be disruptive; UConn effectively took Stanford out of everything the Cardinal wanted to do in the half court (Stanford shot 19 percent for the game), while Baylor struggled offensively versus Notre Dame for stretches of their game in early December.
These teams don't like each other. And that's one of the reasons I love watching them play. And since the game isn't being broadcast by ESPN, there's even a chance it'll be close (the Worldwide Leader's track record for close women's games this season isn't great). But no matter the final score, the game, like the matchups within it, will be worth watching.