The Connecticut men’s basketball team may have won the national championship Monday night against Kentucky, but the women’s team will be the one looking to make history in its showdown against Notre Dame Tuesday.
The Huskies are looking for their ninth national title, which would give coach Geno Auriemma the most championships of all time. However, Notre Dame has beaten mighty Connecticut in seven of the past nine head-to-head meetings and plans on preventing history in Nashville.
What’s more, never before in college basketball (men’s or women’s) have two undefeated teams met in the title game. The 39-0 Huskies and 37-0 Fighting Irish will change that when they take the floor.
Buckle up, because it’s going to be a thrilling ride. Here are some keys that will shape the outcome.
It’s frankly ridiculous how much combined talent Notre Dame and Connecticut have in the backcourt.
Connecticut features All-American Bria Hartley and breakout-star Moriah Jefferson, while Notre Dame counters with All-Americans Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd as well as freshman Lindsay Allen.
In Hartley, the Huskies have one of the best all-around scorers in the nation. She is a capable long-range shooter and has the ability to slash to the rim off the dribble. Furthermore, she is a terrific passer when handling the ball or drawing extra attention from opposing defenses.
Jefferson isn’t the scorer that Hartley is, but she is a stifling defender and gets out in transition with game-changing speed. She gave something of a tongue-in-cheek answer as to how she got so fast on the court, via Graham Hays of ESPN.com:
Just walking around on campus and how fast everybody was walking. Seriously, I'm not even playing. When I was in Texas, I walk, I take my time and just kind of go where I'm going. When I'm walking like that [on campus], everybody is on my back like, 'Move.' ...
So now I think I've picked it up a little bit. I walk a little bit faster.
Jefferson will have to be fast if she and her teammates plan on keeping up with McBride’s scoring ability.
McBride dominated Maryland to the tune of 28 points in the Final Four matchup and averaged 21.5 points in four games against the Huskies last season. If she gets going on the offensive end, Connecticut’s stingy defense will be tested more than it has all year.
Throw in the ultra-athletic Loyd (who is nearly impossible to stop from getting to the rim and is also an excellent long-range shooter), and the Irish may just have the slightest of edges in the backcourt.
Will Depth Play a Factor?
It is a testament to the skill level and conditioning of Connecticut’s starters that Auriemma regularly employs only a six-player rotation.
Kiah Stokes is the one notable reserve for the Huskies, but her versatility and height (6’3”) allows Auriemma to mix and match the few substitutions he does make.
One of the primary keys is whether the Huskies can avoid foul trouble. They have done so all season (no team committed fewer fouls this year), but the national championship is a one-game vacuum that magnifies everything. Connecticut simply doesn’t have the depth to withstand major fouling issues.
The Fighting Irish have a deeper bench thanks to the likes of Markisha Wright, Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable.
Cable and Mabrey are both formidable scorers, but Wright’s role is critical Tuesday because of Natalie Achonwa’s absence (the All-American tore her ACL earlier in the NCAA tournament). She performed admirably against Maryland, but facing Connecticut is an entirely different animal.
Natalie Achonwa’s Absence
As mentioned, Achonwa will not be on the court tonight thanks to her knee injury. SportsCenter pointed out just how valuable she was for the Fighting Irish this year, especially in the scoring department:
Notre Dame star F Natalie Achonwa will miss women's Final Four with torn ACL in left knee. She averages 20.5 PPG. (via @SBTribune)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 1, 2014
Fortunately for Notre Dame, its excellent backcourt and solid depth are capable of picking up much of the scoring slack, but the real issue comes with facing the best frontcourt in the country on the defensive end of the court and on the glass.
The Fighting Irish impressed against Maryland with a 50-21 rebounding advantage, but Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis provide a much stiffer challenge.
Stewart was named the AP National Player of the Year and will likely exploit Achonwa’s absence throughout the game. She is capable of scoring at will and contributing in the rebounding department, and there aren't really any players on the Fighting Irish roster that can truly slow her down.
However, it is Dolson who could grab the most boards Tuesday night. If she does, look for her to utilize her excellent passing abilities to find outside shooters or Mosqueda-Lewis from mid-range.
Connecticut undoubtedly has the advantage in the frontcourt. The real question is whether the Fighting Irish can contain the bigs enough to allow their excellent guards to carry the team to victory.
Follow me on Twitter: