Expected meeting of unbeatens will decide women’s title

Uconn will be trying for its ninth national championship and has never lost a title game, going a perfect 8-0.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NCAA women’s national semifinal games on Sunday night were mere formalities for the collision course long set by Connecticut and Notre Dame.

For the first time, the national championship game on Tuesday features two undefeated teams. And with it, top-ranked UConn (39-0) and second-ranked Notre Dame (37-0) finally get to settle a season-long discussion about which team is best.

In setting up the marquee match, Notre Dame had little trouble in its 87-61 win over fellow ACC member Maryland (28-7). UConn held up its end of the deal in the nightcap with a 75-56 victory over Stanford (33-4).

The national championship game at Bridgestone Arena tips off at 7:30 p.m. CDT. It is a rematch of a national semifinal game last year that UConn won 83-65.

Playing in a record seventh straight Final Four, defending national champion UConn can win its ninth national crown, breaking a tie with Tennessee for most all time. It would mark the Huskies’ fifth perfect season.

"It looked like to me," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma of meeting Notre Dame in the title game, "as the season went on, it almost looked like it was inevitable. You know, like it was supposed to happen."

Notre Dame is just the fifth school to play in the Women’s Final Four at least six times. The Fighting Irish are seeking a second national title and first since cutting down the nets in 2001. They were national runners-up in 2011 and ‘12, losing to Texas A&M and Baylor, respectively.

Former Big East Conference rivals, UConn and Notre Dame didn’t play this year for the first time since the 1994-95 season. The Fighting Irish had beaten UConn four straight times and seven out of eight before losing to the Huskies in last year’s national semifinals.

"I don’t think any of us really thought about that or expected that to happen," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw of winning all 37 games to make the title game for a third time in four years.

"I think we kind of wanted to be here, maybe expected that we could get here," she added. "But the reality of being undefeated and being in the championship game is, it’s quite an accomplishment."

Having won every game in a season four times, Auriemma understands the accomplishment of making the championship game unscathed. But the Huskies are measured by national titles, not runner-up finishes — something they’ve never done, having won all eight title games they’ve played.

"To have the spotlight on Tuesday on two teams that one of them is going to lose for the first time this year," said Auriemma. "It’s pretty remarkable when you think about how hard that is to do for one team, much less two."

In the first semifinal game, Notre Dame easily dispatched No. 4 seed Maryland. All-American senior guard Kayla McBride scored 19 of a game-high 28 points in the first half as the Fighting Irish blew the game open.

"I think we’re very fearless," said McBride. "We have a certain toughness about us, and, I don’t know, I think we’re ready for anything. I think we have a great coach who is more competitive than us. It trickles down."

Not to be outdone, UConn started slowly in its semifinal match, but then raced past No. 2 seed Stanford. The Huskies made only three of their first 14 shots and needed a 12-0 run to lead by just four points at halftime. 

But UConn turned it on in the second half, led by All-American sophomore forward Breanna Stewart. She had a game-high 18 points and team-best seven rebounds.

"I think at times, we were a little bit jumpy, getting too excited," Stewart said. "And we had to settle down and get into the right rhythm of the game."

In beating Maryland, it was no Natalie Achonwa, no problem for Notre Dame. The 6-foot-3 senior forward, a third-team All-American, was lost for the Final Four with a torn ACL in her left knee suffered late in the Fighting Irish’s regional final win over Baylor.

Achonwa is the team’s leading rebounder (7.7) and third-leading scorer (14.9), and she had stepped up her game even more in the NCAA tournament, averaging 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in four victories to make the Final Four. That included notching 19 points and a game-high 15 rebounds before being injured with 4:51 remaining in the win over Baylor.

While her inside presence wasn’t needed Sunday night — Notre Dame had a huge 50-21 edge in rebounding — it could be sorely missed against UConn. The Huskies have one of the nation’s best — if not, the best — inside tandems in the 6-4 Stewart and 6-5 senior center Stefanie Dolson.

"The biggest keys and the thing we’ve worked on all week against our practice guys was boxing out," said McGraw of the emphasis on rebounding without Achonwa. "[It’s] really getting a body on someone, not worrying about who was going to go get the rebound."

Notre Dame held Maryland All-American senior forward Alyssa Thomas to 14 points, five points below her average. The loss ended a NCAA tourney run by the Terrapins (28-7) that included beating No. 1 seed Tennessee in a regional semifinal and No. 3 seed Louisville on its home floor to make the Final Four.

The Fighting Irish used a 12-2 run midway through the first half to blow the game open. By the time a 3-pointer by junior guard Madison Cable beat the buzzer, Notre Dame had opened a 48-31 bulge by halftime.

"I’m just going to take it as being in the national championship game," said McBride. "Two great teams out there, it’s going to be a battle."

UConn had four players other than Stewart score in double figures, including junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored all 15 of her points in the second half. Senior guard Bria Hartley added 13, followed by Dolson and sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson with 10 each.

Stanford All-American senior forward Chiney Ogwumike had a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds, but she was still held 11 points shy of her season average in scoring.