SOUTH BEND — In some ways the UConn women’s basketball defied the odds and in others it was par for the course when the Huskies defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Sunday at Purcell Pavilion.
The No. 2 ranked Huskies bested the No. 1 Irish, 89-71.
Coach Muffet McGraw and her teams have made Purcell one of the toughest venues in college basketball. The Irish have an all-time record of 469-93 (.835 winning percentage) at home.
UConn snapped ND’s 28-game home winning streak and handed the Irish just their third loss in the last 101 games at Purcell. All three of the losses have been to the Huskies.
“Notre Dame is older, more experienced and playing at home,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Notre Dame is a confident team and they have earned that right. We are a work in progress. “
The Irish are the defending national champions and returned almost all of the players for last season’s team.
“Just because you have all the same players doesn’t mean you are the same team,” Auriemma said. “I have been through that before.”
In addition to standouts from last season like Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard and Jackie Young; the Irish had Brenna Turner return this year after sitting out last season while recovering from a knee injury.
“It seems like last year we were trying to win without her. Today it seemed like we were trying to win with her,” McGraw said.
The game was close in the third period as Notre Dame cut the deficit to two points (55-53) with 4:13 remaining in the quarter on a 3-pointer by Mabrey. The Huskies led 65-59 entering the fourth and outscored the Irish 24-12 the rest of the way.
“We lost our poise. That was unexpected,” McGraw said. “I was disappointed to see the veterans that we have not rise to the occasion. We’re a better team than we showed.”
The Irish last year on the way to the program’s second national championship edged the previously unbeaten Huskies 91-89 in overtime in the national semifinals.
One player who made a big difference in Sunday’s game was UConn freshman Christyn Williams as she poured in a career-high 28 points. Her previous best was 17 in an 86-40 win over Purdue.
When Auriemma was asked what the difference was between this year and last year he had a simple answer.
“Williams,” the coach said. “If I could have passed her the ball in the semifinal game I would have, but I would have gotten hit by the NCAA with a recruiting violation since she was still in high school.”
Williams was 11-of-16 from the floor (2-of-4 from 3-point range) and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line.
“When you have a player like Williams, who is at her best driving to the basket and you can tell her in her biggest game to do what she does best it’s a good situation,” Auriemma said.
McGraw recruited Williams, so she knew what the youngster was capable of doing.
“He ability to get to the rim worried me,” the coach said.
Despite the fact that McGraw was not pleased with her team’s play on offense, all five of the Irish starters were in double figures led by Young with 18, Ogunbowale 17, Shepard 13, Mabrey 11 and Turner 10.
“Our offensive execution was poor,” the coach said.
Notre Dame turned the ball over nine times, the team’s fourth consecutive game keeping their turnovers in single digits.
The contest was a sellout (Purcell seats 9.149) the 53rd in Irish women’s basketball history. Notre Dame is 43-10 in those games.
Sunday’s game was the sixth time the Irish and Huskies squared off as No. 1 and No. 2 in the country, but just the second time Notre Dame was top ranked. The last was 17 years ago in the 2001 Big East Final when the Huskies posted a 78-76 win.
Ogunbowale notched her first double-double of the season Sunday with 17 points and 10 rebounds, tying her career-high on the boards.
She now has 1,971 career points.
Ogunbowale began the season eighth on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list and has now moved into fifth place. She trails Skylar Diggins (2009-13) who scored 2,357 points, Bethany Morgan (1993-97) 2,322, Katryna Gaither (1992-97) 2,126 and Ruth Riley (1997-01) 2,072.
The game featured two of the winningest coaches in women’s college basketball history with Auriemma at 1,034 wins and McGraw 895.
A total of 807 of McGraw’s wins have been at Notre Dame. She is in her 32nd year at the school, which has an all-time total of 971 wins.
Greg Keim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 326. Follow Greg on Twitter @gkeim_TGN