Photo: Stephen Dunn / Associated Press
STORRS — Geno Auriemma would love to push back UConn’s rematch with Notre Dame to January or maybe even February. That way, the Hall of Fame coach could have a few more weeks to assess the makeup of his team before pitting them against the defending national champions on the road.
The reality, though, is that the Huskies and Fighting Irish will meet on Sunday (4 p.m.) in a renewal of the best rivalry in women’s college basketball.
Along with it, Auriemma hopes, will come valuable lessons that the Huskies can put to good use if not now, then in the coming months.
“I’ve always thought, the earlier you find out about your team and about your players, the better off you’re going to be,” Auriemma said Friday following practice at the Werth Center.
In many ways, there is no perfect time to play the No. 1 team in the country. The Fighting Irish (7-0) are just as talented — if not more talented — than the team that knocked off UConn 91-89 in overtime in last year’s Final Four. Four starters who averaged at least 14 points per game are back — and that doesn’t include forward Brianna Turner, an All-American who sat out all last season recovering from a torn ACL.
Meanwhile, the Huskies, despite being ranked No. 2, aren’t as deep or experienced as they’ve been in the past. Two of their starters — sophomore forward Megan Walker and freshman guard Christyn Williams — did not log a single minute the last time these bluebloods met.
“We’re going out there to win the game,” Auriemma said. “You want Christyn and Megan to do whatever they have to do to help us win the game, whatever that is. I want them to play great. I want them to feel what it feels like to be in that kind of game, in that environment against really good players. I want them to be in situations where they’re guarding somebody they can’t guard and that every defensive possession means a lot and every offensive possession means a lot.”
So far, except for a scare from St. John’s that resulted in a 65-55 win in the U.S. Virgin Islands, this season’s been a relative cakewalk for the Huskies. They’ve won six games by an average of 33.6 points, overwhelming opponents in typical Huskies fashion.
“We’ve been really good for a lot of stretches of a lot of the games, and we’ve been not so good in stretches in these games,” Auriemma said. “If our team aspires to be a great team by the end of the season, then we’ve got a lot of work.”
Sunday should offer clues about how much work is required for the Huskies to achieve that status. Right now, Auriemma believes he has three players — Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield — who are sure things. Walker and especially Williams, who was still in high school a year ago, have yet to earn that trust.
“I’ve always thought, the earlier you find out about your team and about your players, the better off you’re going to be,” Auriemma said. “… There can be no downside to this game after the game’s over. Both coaches are going to feel like, ‘I thought that was going to happen.’ Or they’re going to feel like, ‘I didn’t know we had that in us.’ Both coaches, I think, are going to know more about each individual player and their team as a whole by Sunday night.”
Walker and Williams were both ranked No. 1 in their respective classes coming out of high school. Each player has been productive in spurts this season. Walker is averaging 11.5 points per game this season, slightly ahead of Williams, who’s averaging 10.8.
“I’m really excited,” Williams said. “This is why I came here, to play in big games like this.”
Given the stature of the rivalry, every UConn-Notre Dame game has become a main event. They played twice last season, with the Huskies winning 80-71 in Hartford in December and the Fighting Irish returning the favor in March.
For young players, these games can get intense — and maybe even a bit eye-opening. Just ask Dangerfield, who got her first taste of the rivalry in Purcell Pavilion as a freshman
“That was crazy, their crowd was intense. …,” Dangerfield said, recalling a game the Huskies won 72-61. “It’s not what you’d expect. I remember walking in and thinking this looks different than I’m used to seeing on TV.”