- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Whatever changed with Connecticut in the last month has turned the Huskies into a defensive machine.
Connecticut is playing its best basketball of the season, and that resulted in its first victory of the year over Big East rival Notre Dame, a 83-65 win in the national semifinals. The Huskies lost three times to the Fighting Irish during the regular season, and had lost seven of their past eight games against Notre Dame, but on Sunday picked up a victory on the biggest stage: the Final Four.
A quick reaction:
Overview: The Huskies went on a run late in the first half to take a 39-29 lead going into the break. Notre Dame was forced to play catch-up the rest of the way, a very difficult task against UConn's lock-down defense. The Fighting Irish took a 26-25 lead with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the first half. It was their last lead of the game. Starting with a 3-pointer by UConn guard Bria Hartley from the right wing, the Huskies went on a 14-3 run to end the first half. Notre Dame struggled to find its touch all night, making it impossible to mount the kind of offensive attack it would need to bounce back from a double-digit deficit.
Key player: UConn freshman Breanna Stewart just keeps getting better and better. She was the most dominant player on the floor on Sunday night, scoring 29 points on 10-for-16 shooting from the floor. She also recorded four blocks and kept the ball alive countless times on the glass. She was slowed a bit in the second half after catching an elbow to the shoulder on a screen, but she was able to check back into the game after being assessed by the team's trainers. On Sunday, Stewart gave UConn a potent offensive weapon, which made the team's defense even more relevant.
Key stat: Notre Dame's shooting percentage. The Fighting Irish were bad right from the beginning. And it never really changed. Much of that can be attributed to UConn's swarming defense, but some of it was just poor shooting by Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish finished the night shooting only 22-for-74 from the floor (29.7 percent) and 4-for-13 (30.8 percent) from the 3-point line. In fact, none of Notre Dame's starters had a good shooting night, including its biggest offensive threats, Kayla McBride and Skylar Diggins. McBride finished the night 5-of-20 from the floor, while Diggins shot just 3-for-15.
Turning point: There was a possession with less than 6 minutes remaining when the Huskies grabbed two offensive rebounds and eventually UConn center Stefanie Dolson went to the line for free throws. When Dolson missed the second, UConn guard Kelly Faris grabbed a third offensive rebound. That additional possession ended with Stewart driving middle for an easy score at the rim. The Huskies took a 64-55 lead on that one trip downcourt, and the Fighting Irish just wouldn't have enough time to get back in the game.
What's next: The Huskies will face Big East foe Louisville in Tuesday's title game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). That game is a rematch of the 2009 NCAA final, which the Huskies won. The Cardinals, the first No. 5 seed to reach the title game, defeated California 64-57 in the first game of the night. Louisville is making just its second Final Four appearance in program history, but both times the Cardinals have advanced to the title game. Meanwhile, the Huskies are looking to win their eighth national title in program history, which would tie Geno Auriemma with Pat Summitt.
First-half analysis: Connecticut 39, Notre Dame 29
Overview: This thing was on even before the jump ball. During the introduction of the starting lineups, each Notre Dame player exchanged a steely look and a handshake with the opposite Connecticut player. And the play in the first half was just as focused, with the two teams going blow for blow. There was not a possession in the first half that didn't include lock-down defense. The first 20 minutes featured some of the best defense these two teams have played this year, which is saying something considering both are known for playing great defense. The Huskies finally pulled away in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds with an 11-3 run.
Key player: Kayla McBride and Skylar Diggins. Notre Dame's two star players combined for only six first-half points on a combined 1-for-14 shooting from the floor. Diggins, the senior point guard, shot 0-for-6 from the floor, while McBride's only bucket was at the rim. She also missed all of her pull-up jumpers, usually her strength. The first-half struggles of Notre Dame's star tandem almost overshadowed the big first half put together by UConn forward Breanna Stewart. The 6-foot-4 freshman finished the first half with 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the floor.
Key stat: The Huskies recorded seven blocks in the first half, which helped explain Notre Dame's ridiculously poor field goal percentage. The Fighting Irish started the first half shooting 2-for-21, good for only 9.5 percent accuracy. Notre Dame finished the half shooting 23.7 percent, a number clearly affected by Connecticut's effective interior defense. The block party was led by UConn center Stefanie Dolson, but Stewart also contributed a couple of roof-like rejections.
Key moment: At first it seemed like there wouldn't be one. Neither team was able to build any kind of substantial first-half lead. Each time UConn made a big play -- such as Stewart's long 3-pointer from the right wing -- the Fighting Irish would answer with a nice play of their own, such as a no-look dish from Diggins to guard Jewell Loyd.
Each team was able to overcome certain flaws by excelling in other areas. Notre Dame couldn't buy a basket from its guards, but made up for it by outrebounding UConn 25-21. Similarly, the Huskies were beat on the glass, but made up for it by getting big first-half performances from Stewart (12 points) and forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (eight points). The Huskies were able to buy a little bit of breathing room in the last few minutes of the half when guard Bria Hartley hit a 3-pointer, then, a few minutes later, Stewart hit a 3-pointer from the right corner.
After losing to Notre Dame three times this season -- and in the past two Final Fours -- UConn finally found a way to beat the Irish and Skylar Diggins to return to the NCAA championship game.