Top offense meets best defense
Notre Dame (37-0) and UConn (39-0) meet Tuesday in clash of unbeatens
The matchup people have been anticipating for months finally arrives Tuesday.
Connecticut (39-0) versus Notre Dame (37-0) for the national championship was -- in UConn coach Geno Auriemma's words after his team won Sunday -- "almost inevitable." The two unbeaten giants of the game will meet Tuesday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) to renew a rivalry lost to conference realignment but regained by perfection. For the first time, two unbeaten college basketball teams (men or women) will meet for a title.
Not only have both teams won all of their games this season, they've done it with utter domination. Notre Dame's regular-season victories over Virginia and Maryland (their January meeting, not Sunday's night's 87-61 whitewash in the national semifinals) marked the only two games all season that anyone came within single digits of either team.
The Huskies are trying to complete a fifth undefeated season and equal Baylor's 40-0 mark of 2011-12. The Irish are trying to complete their first unbeaten season and win their second title. Doing so would mean a victory over UConn at the Final Four for the third time in four years.
When they were members of the Big East, they met 12 times in the previous three seasons; the Irish hold a 7-5 advantage. UConn lost just 11 total games in that span. If any team is geared up to topple UConn and prevent the Huskies from a record ninth national championship, it's the Irish.
Given how each of these teams has played lately, Tuesday's finale could be a contrast in styles: UConn's impenetrable defense versus Notre Dame's fluid, highly efficient offense. The final score might very well come down to just that, but these teams aren't total opposites. Each does myriad things well, and neither has a weakness of any magnitude. The key is in finding what strengths are most relevant to this matchup.
These are the two best passing teams in the country. As a result, UConn ranks first in the nation in assists per game (Notre Dame is second). Notre Dame is first in field goal percentage (and 3-point percentage); the Huskies are the second-best shooting team. No two squads are better at creating good shots -- and no one else has the talent to hit them with such regularity.
Notre Dame's offense has been the better of the two lately, scoring at least 84 points in all five of its NCAA tournament games. Even without one of the offense's quarterbacks, Natalie Achonwa, who is out with a torn ACL, the Irish didn't miss a beat and were exceptional against Maryland. Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd give Notre Dame two players capable of scoring 30 points each game, and they can do it in a variety of ways, whether knocking down jumpers from the perimeter or driving inside.
Only Oregon scored more points per game this season than the Irish. UConn ranked 10th. But the Huskies lead the nation in scoring margin, and that tracks back to UConn's defense. Frankly, the Huskies' offense has been average in the NCAA tournament. The team's shooting touch generally hasn't been there, but the defense has been the constant. Scoring against UConn is like trying to blow a medicine ball through a straw. It starts out difficult and gets harder as you go. The Huskies slowly ground Stanford into submission Sunday. BYU and Texas A&M would probably say the same thing.
UConn's game plan is to first take away an opponent's 3-point shooting and limit free throws. One of Auriemma's common and often repeated questions to his assistant coaches during games is, "Why did we foul there?" The need to play cleanly is always on his mind and the reality is the Huskies foul less frequently than anyone in the country. Notre Dame, on the other hand, does a good job of getting to the line -- 182 more times than UConn, to be exact. It's another contrast between two teams that are also in many ways very much the same.
Geno Auriemma vs. Muffet McGraw: They are the two best coaches in the game right now. They teach and expect execution with an extreme attention to detail. Ultimately, players win games, but the chess match both in preparation for and during the game offers the most intriguing one-on-one of the entire season. Adjustments are bound to be necessary in a game with so much emotion and so much at stake.
Which coach finds that right button to push could be the difference. How will Notre Dame adjust to UConn's size? Can UConn recharge its offense? These are just two of the questions the two coaches face. Whoever has the better answers will likely have another championship.
Advantage: Connecticut. The Huskies' Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis make up the best frontcourt trio in the country, and there is no second place. Stewart, the game's most difficult individual matchup, already was named the AP national player of the year. Dolson, the most versatile center in the nation, is a second-team All-American capable of a triple-double. Mosqueda-Lewis, the purest of shooters, would have landed on an All-America list had she not missed time with elbow injuries and then mono. Each does so many different things well individually. Collectively, they are devastating on both ends of the floor.
The absence of Achonwa ruins Notre Dame's chance to even be competitive in this category. McGraw needed other players to step up, and Taya Reimer and Markisha Wright did just that against Maryland. Reimer played a solid 30 minutes Sunday, which is 12 more than she averaged all season and 17 more than she had been playing in the NCAA tournament's first four games. Senior Ariel Braker was a nonfactor against Maryland, playing just 11 minutes, but she tallied 10 points and six rebounds against Baylor in the Elite Eight.
Advantage: Notre Dame. The Irish have the edge, but it's slim. The amount of talent in the backcourt in this game is staggering and plays a huge part in both teams' unbeaten streaks. Most notably, the Irish have put together their perfect season with a freshman point guard, and that's a testament to Lindsay Allen's poise from the outset. Playing alongside two All-Americans in McBride and Loyd doesn't hurt, either.
McBride is a consummate scorer, whose midrange game sets her apart. She broke out this season to become a first-team All-American, but struggled some in the regionals, shooting just 7-of-19. It's also worth noting that McBride had been just a 28 percent shooter in her three previous Final Four appearances. The assassin-like McBride was back on Sunday night. Her confidence once again beaming, she torched Maryland for 28 points. Knowing that she averaged 21.5 points in four games against UConn a year ago should serve her well Tuesday night.
McGraw calls Loyd the best athlete she has ever coached. Her ability to get to and finish at the rim is rare -- the Jewelly-oop is a growing legend -- but she's also a 40 percent 3-point shooter. She and McBride are matchup nightmares for any defense, even UConn's.
Of course, UConn has its own All-American in Bria Hartley. Her versatility as a shooter, distributor, driver and defender -- whether at the point or off the ball -- is vital to what the Huskies have been able to do in her four years.
The emergence of Moriah Jefferson has allowed Hartley to become more of a scorer this season (career-high 16.3 PPG). Jefferson became that last perfect piece to the UConn puzzle this season. She more than doubled her scoring average from her freshman season and became the kind of defender no one wants to face, an annoying (in a good way) ball stalker. On offense she doesn't need to shoot, but is usually willing. Stanford gave her looks from the perimeter and she was a little more reluctant than usual. Notre Dame will likely do the same. How Jefferson responds is something to watch for Tuesday.
Advantage: Notre Dame. Given that Connecticut doesn't have one, this was an easy choice. Notre Dame gets the nod with Madison Cable, Michaela Mabrey and Markisha Wright. The difficulty here is that Auriemma has made this a moot point the past two seasons, finding a way to dominate with no depth.
UConn's use of just six players is well documented. Auriemma has worked brilliantly around season-ending injuries to Morgan Tuck, as well as Brianna Banks' and Mosqueda-Lewis' injury stints. In many ways, Connecticut's bench is just the second gear of its starters, the players conditioning and their uncanny ability to play without fouling (UConn leads the nation in fewest fouls committed). Kiah Stokes, a 6-foot-3 junior center, is UConn's one reserve. She just so happened to play what Auriemma called her best game ever at UConn on Sunday night (nine points on 4-of-4 shooting, with four rebounds). Her size allows the Huskies some flexibility. Dolson and Stewart are able to get quick breathers, or Auriemma can go to a bigger lineup with Stewart at the 3 and the 6-foot Mosqueda-Lewis at the 2.
Cable and Mabrey give Notre Dame two more shooters, and Cable is one of those players who seem to be around the ball whenever she's in the game. The real key here is Wright. Her role is upgraded with Achonwa out and she became the player to most significantly raise her level of play, with 12 points and nine rebounds against Maryland. That's coming off a season with averages of 3.3 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Like Reimer, Wright played a season-high 23 minutes. They teamed up to produce a combined 21 points and 14 rebounds. The question here is, will Reimer and Wright be ready for the significant upgrade in competition (Maryland offered little inside resistance) and the even greater magnitude of the moment?
Advantage: Notre Dame. Both coaches are brilliant. The players are big-game tested and know how to win. That much is a wash. Where UConn typically has a huge advantage is the aura it carries on the court, especially in these types of games. A crisis of confidence is common in teams playing UConn.
The one team that doesn't work against is Notre Dame. Perhaps the greatest intangible legacy Skylar Diggins left in South Bend was instilling the confidence in the entire program that Notre Dame could beat Connecticut. She was part of seven wins over the Huskies in her final three seasons. The key players on this Irish team were part of at least some of those wins. McBride admitted during her news conference on Monday that these two teams don't necessarily like each other, but her team has a swagger when it plays Connecticut. No one else can say that and really mean it. UConn might still win, but it won't be because the Irish didn't think they could.
1. Breanna Stewart: The modest offensive struggles for UConn lately can be traced right to Stewart's personal slump. In Connecticut's past three games, Stewart has shot just 13-of-34 from the field. The 2013 Final Four was Stewart's breakout into stardom. UConn could use that version of Stewart -- and the one who was a 50 percent shooter during the regular season.
2. Jewell Loyd: The sophomore is the one significant athletic advantage the Irish have in this matchup. Until McBride's terrific game in the national semifinals, Loyd had been Notre Dame's best player in the NCAA tournament. Taking a bit of a backseat to McBride on Sunday, Loyd took just 11 shots. She will have to be more assertive against Hartley, Jefferson and maybe even Stewart.
3. Notre Dame's bigs: The Irish got what they needed out of Reimer and Wright in place of Achonwa against Maryland. Facing Dolson and Stewart is a different challenge. Notre Dame shockingly demolished the Terrapins on the glass with a 50-21 rebounding margin. That won't happen again Tuesday. Achonwa will be severely missed against the Huskies.
Connecticut. Notre Dame is more talented and executes better than every team it plays -- except Connecticut. Achonwa's absence will show up much more Tuesday than it did against Maryland. UConn isn't just bigger than Notre Dame, it is significantly more versatile and experienced along the front line. That will be the difference. UConn's dominance has been more methodical than spectacular this season, and the Huskies will, ultimately, wear down Notre Dame, too.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UConn beat Notre Dame 79-58 to cap a 40-0 season to win it second consecutive NCAA title and record ninth championship overall.