By Jeffrey Newholm
“The success we’re having…enjoy it, because it won’t last forever”. Perhaps UConn fans shrugged off this advice from coach Geno Auriemma in a banquet last season. But after Arike Ogunbowale’s dagger in overtime in the semifinals, the second straight buzzer-concluded loss, the armor seemed to be more than a bit rusty. With Notre Dame returning multiple players from injuries to a defending title squad, and UConn losing two senior leaders, the universal consensus favored Notre Dame entering Sunday afternoon’s Jimmy V week showdown in South Bend. Many opined a new era of parity in women’s basketball had finally arrived. Surprisingly, the huskies seemed to agree.
Big Game Buildup
Three seasons in a row, UConn finished the regular season undefeated. The last two, it just made the conclusion worse. So the team claimed to focus more on rounding into form for the big dance, rather than winning every game. “It’s so early in the season that right now we’re just trying to go in and really see where we’re at as a team and see what we can do”, claimed Katie Lou Samuelson before the game. Although both teams were undefeated, Notre Dame had battled several ranked opponents. UConn, conversely, had just one tight affair against Saint John’s. To add to the hype for a sold out crowd, the Irish entered the game winning 98 of its last 100 home games. Their only two losses? The hated huskies.
Showdown in South Bend
While many scoff at UConn’s lesser recruiting classes, freshwoman Christyn Williams quickly proved that the dogs still patrol the talent pipeline. She scored 16 first quarter points, but Ogunbowale was the star of the half. UConn led just 44-41 at halftime and seemed rattled by the “get loud” prompt and crowd response. But the Irish couldn’t claw back. They seemed out of luck as many near and-ones barely slipped off the rim. Meanwhile, UConn uncharacteristically dominated from outside.
Notre Dame proved they’re far from a one woman team, with three teammates joining Ogunbowale with 13 attempts or more. Both teams are talented enough to not need superwoman heroics. But cold shooting doomed the top-ranked Irish. The team shot just 1 of 12 from beyond the arc, with Ogunbowale missing all six of her threes. Without outside shooting, no team can outwork UConn in the paint. And the Huskies, despite only playing six players, bumped and bruised to a 89-71 triumph.
Aftermath and Aftershock
A frustrated capacity crowd of 9,149 could only stew in horror as the black-clad nemesis dribbled out the win. Just as in the ’16-’17 season, when a supposedly rebuilding UConn stretched its streak to 111 straight, the women’s basketball narrative was overturned in two hours. Of course, as we all know, the tournament means almost everything. Baylor, Louisville, and long-battling South Florida and Central Florida remain to menace the sport’s imperial empire menace. But for hundreds of fans across the country, the remote couldn’t help but be nervous. Because by now the field has thrown almost every object at the Orwellian projection of dominance. But, for at least one more night, the huskies parade to the drumbeat of enviable, but universally unenvied, consistent success.