UConn favored, but little margin for error
Unlike Sunday's opener between Texas A&M and Stanford, the nightcap (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET Sunday) is best described as similar and familiar.
Just like the Elite Eight, the Final Four gives us a fourth meeting between conference foes. While each of the three meetings between UConn and Notre Dame had a unique flavor, the end result was the same: Connecticut victories. In South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 8, the Irish gave UConn a legitimate scare it survived, 79-76, thanks to some late Kelly Faris heroics and a brilliant all-around game from Maya Moore. Meeting No. 2 in Storrs, Conn., on Feb. 19 was all Huskies, a 78-57 victory.
NOTRE DAME VS. UCONN
Connecticut and Notre Dame will meet Sunday at the Final Four. The Big East rivals already have played three times this season, most recently March 8 in the Big East championship game in Hartford, Conn.
|Jan. 8||UConn 79, at Notre Dame 76|
|Feb. 19||At UConn 78, Notre Dame 57|
|March 8||UConn 73, Notre Dame 64|
How have each team's stars performed in the series? Diggins, a 42.5 percent shooter on the season, has shot 35 percent against UConn. Maya Moore's stats include a 31-point performance in their first meeting.
The third go-round, on March 8 (26 days before they'll meet again in the Final Four), was somewhere in between. A tight opening 20 minutes gave way to an early second-half UConn run which the Huskies rode to a fourth straight Big East tournament title.
Both teams emphasize offensive efficiency over the spectacular. Both would like to use defense to fuel the offense. Both know the importance of rebounding on the defensive end. Both have star players who dictate much of how well each team plays (although Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins does her thing in a much different way than UConn's Maya Moore does). The problem for the Irish is that Connecticut has done all of those things, and a few more, better up to this point.
With last season's Connecticut squad, it was difficult to find what wasn't a strength. The 2011 edition does have some warts (depth rises to the top of everyone's list) and boils down to a couple basic truths. First and foremost, these Huskies, like their predecessors, play defense. No team in the nation is harder to shoot against (32 percent field goal defense) and no team gives up fewer points (49.5 ppg) than UConn. When the Huskies need a stop, they get a stop. They have taken "digging in" to a higher level. That kind of defensive domination is made all the more impressive, if not amazing, when it's being done with just six players. Somehow, the Huskies are able to make their opponents uncomfortable without committing the fouls that would otherwise cripple them. Very specifically, that is UConn's greatest strength.
But not to be outdone is an offense that is just as good at putting the ball in the basket as the defense is at preventing it. Again the national leader in field goal percentage (49.6), the Huskies are especially deadly when they share the ball extensively. Coach Geno Auriemma called for more of that at halftime of the regional final and what he received was a 45-point second half in the rout of Duke. The numbers didn't lie. According to ESPN Stats & Information, when the Huskies executed four or more passes on a possession against the Blue Devils, they shot 84 percent. And it was a rare occasion when the coach actually had to ask for ball movement. UConn ranks third in the country in assists.
All of this is accentuated by the fact that if anything fails -- and to steal, paraphrase and modify something Auriemma once said about another great Connecticut player -- he has Maya Moore and the other team doesn't.
Notre Dame's strengths
Call it ironic or call it a shame, but UConn's strengths are also Notre Dame's. The Irish are extremely efficient offensively (fourth in field goal percentage and ninth in assists). Spacing, moving without the ball and dribble penetration are easy to spot when Notre Dame has the ball, often all on the same possession. Muffet McGraw's club is also good at turning steals (fourth in the nation) into layups. Few teams are as good at being organized on the break as Notre Dame. UConn and Stanford might be the only clubs better at finishing.
What the program hasn't always been known for is the grind-it-out half-court defense that has really made a big difference this season, especially in this run to Indianapolis. In the NCAA tournament, only one Notre Dame opponent has shot better than 40 percent (Oklahoma) and only one foe has scored more than 60 points (Temple). And on the season, opponents have made a mere 36 percent of their shots (a 5 percent improvement over 2010).
Point guards. Skylar Diggins fuels the Notre Dame engine. Scoring is not a prerequisite either. The Irish sophomore can make winning plays without necessarily being the finisher, but when she does score, like she did against Tennessee in the Elite Eight (24 points), Notre Dame reaches new heights. Oh, and yes -- in that game, Diggins did it while matched against a freshman point guard just as she'll be doing again on Sunday night. Diggins' mastery of Meighan Simmons was the biggest difference when the Irish upset the Lady Vols.
UConn's Bria Hartley is a different kind of player, and one who has been outstanding down the stretch of the regular season right into the NCAA tournament -- but she's a rookie nonetheless. The game could boil down to how much Hartley can do to disrupt, or at least offset, Diggins' ability to control the action. UConn did a nice job knocking Diggins off her game in the last two meetings (combined 6 assists, 8 turnovers and 13-of-34 shooting). The Irish sophomore can't allow that here if Notre Dame is to pull the upset.
Advantage: Connecticut. Moore is the game's best player. Stefanie Dolson might well be the season's most improved player from November to March. Together they have been Notre Dame killers at different points this season. Moore was a dominating force in UConn's close call in South Bend in January. Dolson played perhaps her best game of the season in the Big East tournament final. That game might have been the biggest example of how much Dolson's confidence and, probably more importantly, her teammates' confidence in her, have grown. She's someone they can lean on now.
Of course, the Huskies really have no choice given their paltry depth. There is no option B. That leads to a major component of Dolson's development -- her smarts on defense. She gets in the way just enough to contest shots, but not enough to foul.
Some teams are able to exploit Dolson's lack of lateral quickness. Notre Dame really isn't one of them. Becca Bruszewski, Devereaux Peters and Natalie Achonwa are rock solid, but none is playing on roller skates, either. Bruszewski isn't going to out-quick anyone, especially with the injured knee she's fighting through, but few will outwork her. Peters' entire career has been about injured knees. She also might have set a record for highlights-per-minutes-played ratio against Tennessee, illustrating just the weapon she can be when she's on the floor. Her 17 points in UConn-Notre Dame I also means she's capable of doing it against the Huskies.
Notre Dame's entire frontcourt needs to keep Dolson away from the good offensive position she was able to get in the two more recent meetings. If it can't, this is a huge Connecticut advantage because Moore is going to get hers one way or another.
Advantage: Connecticut. Hartley has certainly been right there in the discussion of the freshman point guards exploding onto the landscape this season, but what might have been lost is just how consistent she has been. Hartley has reached double figures in five of the Huskies' seven postseason games and has had between three and six assists in all of them. The shooting hasn't been outstanding, but it's steady and certainly never disastrous. Unusual for a rookie, Hartley doesn't take many bad shots. The one thing to watch is the turnovers, though. They've crept up to five in each of the last three games.
Geno Auriemma might ride his freshman hard, but he knows what he's getting in Hartley. Those words go double for Kelly Faris, maybe the most versatile, intelligent Huskies player of them all. And that's saying plenty when Moore puts on the same color jersey. Where UConn could use a bit more reliability is in the offense of Tiffany Hayes, who is capable of being the second-best player on the floor. But when she struggles to shoot well, the Huskies typically struggle to play well.
The backcourt is the bread and butter of Notre Dame's attack. The Tennessee win was Diggins putting it all together, knowing when to look to score and knowing when to help someone else do it. Her drive-and-dish game makes Natalie Novosel that much better because Notre Dame's leading scorer has a knack for finding room and doesn't waste her dribble. The emphasis of Brittany Mallory's game is now defense, where she could become a huge key, particularly against Hayes.
With all the talent in the backcourt for both these teams, the one player who could tilt the scales UConn's way is the one Huskies regular who doesn't start: Lorin Dixon. The diminutive senior might have saved Connecticut in the regional semifinals against Georgetown and her insistence on playing at a higher gear than anyone else certainly changed the course of the blowout of Duke.
Moore's shooting touch. While Moore has been very good in the tournament's first four games, she hasn't been great. And her usually flawless jumper is to blame. The numbers have been down -- not horrific, but down -- for sure. Until the breakout against Duke, Moore's best percentage in the NCAA tournament was 41 percent, and she was only 5-of-15 from 3-point range in those first three games. Even against the Blue Devils, it took that gorgeous end-of-the-half baseline pull-up to get the jump shot going. As has been stated a number of times, the margin for error for this UConn team is not what 2009 and 2010 provided. It will be even smaller in Indy. The Huskies need their four-time All-American to shoot well. So many other areas become available if she does.
Connecticut. The Huskies have more experience in these situations, but that isn't why they will win. Let's remember that a third of the rotation has never played in a Final Four game. Connecticut will win simply because it is better, not necessarily by a lot, but better. Three victories over Notre Dame this season have shown that. A fourth isn't a foregone conclusion -- Texas A&M proved that -- but it's a pretty good indicator. Final prediction: Sunday's game is similar to the Big East tournament championship, and Connecticut rides one big second-half run to distance itself in what is otherwise an evenly played game to move on to play for a third straight title.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.