Notre Dame is the favorite in 1-2 showdown with UConn

The UConn-Notre Dame series has been marked by more periods of Huskies dominance. But when the teams meet Sunday at Notre Dame, the Irish will be No. 1 and the perceived favorite, flipping the standard script.

Both teams are unbeaten entering the first major showcase of the season (ESPN/WatchESPN, 4 p.m. ET). UConn is ranked No. 2; it is the sixth time the programs have met as the 1-2 teams in the Associated Press poll. But it’s just the second time — the other was 17 years ago — that the Irish hold the No. 1 spot heading into their meeting.

“I’m excited it’s a sellout; I think our fans are excited about the game,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Nationally, it’s one of the best rivalries in women’s college basketball, so I think people will be tuning in to see what happens here.”

She has an experienced team. As for getting some of her younger players ready for a game of this magnitude, McGraw said the veterans will have to lead the way.

“It’s a tall task; there is such a gap between our starters and our bench now,” she said. “We just need somebody to come along. It will be a matter of the upperclassmen really instilling some confidence in the freshman.”

Their last meeting was an instant classic: Notre Dame won 91-89 in overtime in the national semifinals in March in Columbus, Ohio. Many of the key players from that game are back. And a few who didn’t play at all in that contest might end up as difference-makers Sunday.

For the 7-0 Irish, Kathryn Westbeld, their guts-and-grit forward, is the biggest loss from a season ago. But they have back their other starters: Arike Ogunbowale, who hit the game-winning shot versus UConn, Jackie Young, Marina Mabrey and Jessica Shepard. Mabrey was out the early part of this season with a quadriceps injury but returned last Saturday in Notre Dame’s 91-81 victory over Oregon State.

Mabrey and the rest of the Irish dismantled No. 14 Iowa 105-71 on Thursday, with all five Irish starters scoring in double figures, led by Ogunbowale’s 30. That includes forward Brianna Turner, who missed last season after an ACL injury in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Turner, a redshirt senior, had 14 points and 11 rebounds against Iowa, and is averaging 14.0 PPG and 8.7 RPG this season.

UConn (6-0), though, also has some current contributors who weren’t at the forefront (or there at all) for last year’s meetings. But watch for them Sunday. Sophomore forward Megan Walker is averaging 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, and freshman guard Christyn Williams 10.8 points and 4.0 rebounds. Walker is shooting 54.7 percent from the field, Williams 61.0 percent.

“You want Christyn and Megan to do whatever they have to do to help us win the game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I want them to play great, and to feel what it feels like to be in that kind of game and environment. I want them to be in situations where they are guarding somebody they can’t guard. And that every defensive and offensive possession means a lot. We have two young players that I’m anxious to see how they do.”

UConn won 80-71 in the regular-season meeting with Notre Dame last December in Hartford, Connecticut, a game in which the Huskies took over the fourth quarter 26-9. Walker played 16 minutes then, taking one shot. She finished with three points and six rebounds. In the national semifinal, she didn’t play, as UConn used just six players.

Three of them are now in the WNBA: Gabby Williams, Kia Nurse and Azura Stevens. The other three are back as the Huskies’ core: seniors Katie Lou Samuelson, currently averaging 20.0 points and 6.8 rebounds, and Napheesa Collier (18.3 points, 9.8 rebounds), and junior Crystal Dangerfield (13.2 points, 5.3 assists).

Samuelson had 18 points in the first meeting with the Irish last season and 16 in the second. Collier led UConn in the semifinal with 24 points, and had 15 in the first meeting.

The Huskies are coming off a 99-63 victory Wednesday over DePaul. They were pushed by St. John’s but won 65-55 in the Virgin Islands last Friday. Other than that, Sunday’s game will be their first real test.

Notre Dame has already faced another top-10 foe in then-No. 9 Oregon State, and trailed by nine at halftime in the Vancouver Showcase. But the Irish rallied with a 50-point second half to win, led by 23 points from Young and 21 each from Turner and Ogunbowale.

Thursday, McGraw was particularly happy with the way the Irish passed the ball against Iowa, with 21 assists. Their ball movement has been a key over the years in their success against UConn.

“We still have a lot of work to do defensively,” McGraw said. “But really excited about the assist-to-turnover ratio, 21-9. That’s the thing that has been missing.”

Still, the Irish have often taken the role of underdog against UConn. They have come into other games ranked higher than the Huskies, including some meetings during the stretch from 2011-13, when Notre Dame won seven of eight in the series.

But the only other time they’ve met as 1-2 teams with Notre Dame ranked first was the 2001 Big East tournament final; the Irish had gotten the top ranking that year by getting their first-ever win over the Huskies during the regular season. Sue Bird won the league tournament title game with a jump shot at the buzzer, but Notre Dame claimed the 2001 national championship after beating UConn in the semifinals.

All in all, no team has challenged UConn more than the Irish over the past 17 years, dating back to that first Notre Dame win in the series. Still, UConn has a 36-12 overall series lead, and the Huskies have won their games over the Irish by an average of 15.6 points. The Irish have won their games in the series by an average of 8.6 points.

Neither coach believes any of that history — including last March’s epic game — factors into Sunday. It will be on fans’ minds, of course, but for the teams, it’s a new battle.

“I don’t know how anybody else deals with it; I know how we deal with it,” Auriemma said of a team being in the favorite’s role. “It’s good for us every once in a while to just feel unencumbered by anything other than we have to play well.”

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