Both semi-final games in the 2011 Women's Big East Tournament had the sense of a family reunion. There were the staples with Rutgers and Connecticut acting like your grandma and grandpa dancing on the lawn to the chagrin of their children. Always there when it counts and matters, the backbone of the family. Notre Dame stepped into the role of that cousin that just disappeared one day and magically shows up as if they had never left but invited their friend, Depaul, who just looked around wondering if this is what it always like at the big kids table, as they have never made it past the Big East semi-finals.
Monday's night games featured two games of teams that are the most familiar with each other.
Rutgers and UConn from their desire to be the best in the Northeast. Contempt is breed when a team that has had sustained success gets told that their time is over by a team that hasn't won anything yet. While that dislike has been tempered the last few years, both of these still compete for the crown more than any others in the league. Connecticut was 5-1 coming into the game against Rutgers in Big East play..
Depaul and Notre Dame has a fierce rivalry that goes beyond basketball. It involves mid-west battles of Catholic school supremacy. With a matchup less than a week ago that involved a buzzer beater by Depaul on their home floor, this was a matchup of 2 teams who have no desire to like each other in the future because of god driven hate.
Here is a recap of the games:
The Connecticut Huskies came into this game after playing an intense physical battle with Georgetown. They, like me, expected much of the same as they prepared to square off against a battle tested veteran team in Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights feature 2 - sophomores, 2 - juniors and 1 redshirt junior. The Huskies came in with 2 - Freshman, 1 - Sophomore, 1- Junior and 1- All Everything senior. Youth trumped seniority in this battle.
Rutgers matched UConn's intensity for the first 10 minutes of the game. Rutgers jumped out to a 3 point lead off of the opening tap with an April Sykes 3. UConn took the lead off of a Stefanie Dolson layup sandwiched by Maya Moore's reemergence into a player of a different planet. Rutgers cut the lead to four on 2 separate occasions before a barrage of 3's took a manageable game and turned it into a blow out for the offensively challenged Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers has had a struggle on the offensive end the last few seasons. Rutgers was averaging 61.5 points per game and shooting 42% from the floor. The first half saw the Scarlet Knights have as many as field goals as turnovers and 5'3" UConn guard Lorin Dixon have as many rebounds, 4, as RU post Chelsey Lee and Monique Oliver combined.
Rutgers is primarily known for their "55" defense. A high intensity defensive scheme that involved pressuring for 94' at unknown times for the offense. The Huskies are prone to turn the ball over with an inexperienced freshman point, that coming into the tournament had more turnovers than assists. RU never implored it. Instead they implemented a 2-3 and then a 3-2 zone that gave up 6 - 3's to the Huskies in the first half, including a dagger with 1 second left on the clock, leading to a score of 39-20 at the half.
Rutgers was hurt by the inability to get shots for the players that can make them consistently. Leading scorer April Sykes was held to 9 points on 4-10 shooting by Moore and sophomore guard Kelly Faris. Khadijah Rushdan was also held to 9 points on 4-9 shooting but did have 6 assists and 5 rebounds who also saw Faris in her face when she scored for a few possessions in a row. Defense is something that the guard takes pride in.
"You work really hard at something and you want to see it pay off," Kelly Faris said. "The defensive end is where I take the most pride. I take it as a challenge when they put me on their best players. It's what I have been taught from day 1 and it's something I will continue to do even when my shots are not falling."
While sometimes those shots don't fall, they were tonight. Kelly Faris was 6-9 from the floor, 3-4 from 3, and scored 19 points.
While most players practice shooting for hours on end, I imagine Kelly Faris getting in her defensive stance and working on her rebounding till the wee hours of the morning.
While UConn forced Rutgers into taking the shots they wanted the Scarlet Knights to take, the intense physical battle never happened. UConn was allowed to run their pretty offense resulting in 23 assists on 25 made baskets.
"I think probably my answer is when we're generating some movement and the ball's moving, that's kind of how we play, said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "You know, that's the way we've always played. Whether it's Rutgers or anybody else, I think you have to sometimes be a little more patient. We were patient when we needed to be. Sometimes you have to be a little more aggressive, and we were aggressive when we needed to be. So we had a pretty good rhythm going. Once we got into that nice tempo we have unselfish players that are pretty good passers. So you get nights like this."
The 2nd half was a matter of formality as it allowed UConn a chance to rest some of their players for a date in the Big East Championship game. Included in that was 11 minutes for seldom used Michaela Johnson, still recovering from two ACL injuries she incurred in high school. Johnson delivered with 5 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and a block.
She might have been who Rutgers coach, C. Vivian Stringer meant when she said, "Geno did us a big favor by bringing in players whose names I don't even know, and they still scored because the basic things we were talking about, defensively [didn't happen]."
The Huskies were led by Moore's 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, a block and a steal. In addition to Faris' 19 points she also had 4 assists and 3 rebounds. Freshman Stefanie Dolson followed up her career high performance against Georgetown with another stellar performance. The center had 12 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Rutgers was led in scoring by Erica Wheeler who had 17 points and 5 rebounds.
UConn was allowed to sit back, dance on dance cams and see who would be their next opponent in the Depaul vs. Notre Dame game.
This game like the first was a battle of opposites. While Depaul is offensively efficient and a finesse team, Notre Dame is a take you off the bounce and pound it inside team. A battle of wills that saw Depaul get down early, come back to take a lead and then run out of time to do it again.
Neither team ever lead the game by double digits as Notre Dame led by as many as 9 in the 1st, 3 minutes into the game. Depaul battled back to take an 8 point lead with 1 minute to go in the half. From then it was a battle of wills as it was punch, counter punch.
Notre Dame sophomore guard, Skylar Diggins was able to penetrate the lane on Depaul's guards and posts.
Depaul countered with feeding the ball inside to Keisha Hampton.
When Depaul stopped penetration, Deveraux Peters and Natalie Achonwa went to work on the inside for the Irish in the second half.
Depaul's answer? Shoot 3's. It worked as there were 11 lead changes in the 2nd half. Notre Dame erased a six-point halftime deficit and took its own six-point lead, 57-51. DePaul battled back to tie the game at 57 on Hampton's free throw with 7:25 left.
The teams traded leads over the next five minutes.
The Irish led 61-60 when Becca Bruszewski got fouled on a lay-in. She limped off the court to the locker room and Natalie Novosel made one of the two free throws with 3:39 left to make it a two-point game.
Trailing 65-64 with 1:43 left, Diggins hit a lay-in to give the Irish a one-point lead. After Sam Quigley missed a lay-in, Diggins found Achonwa for a basket to make it 68-65.
Diggins hit one of two free throws and Hampton turned it over on the next possession on a controversial non cal, as Diggins impeded the progress of Sam Quigley causing the ball to go off Quigley and awarding the ball to Notre Dame. Brittany Mallory hit two free throws with 2.5 seconds left to seal the deal to get to the final score, 71-67, Notre Dame over Depaul.
This game was always going to come down to the final minutes. Five of the last seven meetings have been decided by five points or less for the schools who are only 2-hour drive apart.
"Yeah, I think just the distance between our two schools is big," said senior guard Sam Quigley. "We're one of the two teams in the BIG EAST that are in the Midwest. So that rivalry has always been there. It's really competitive and always fun to play them because they're always really good."
Doug Bruno had his own thoughts.
"Notre Dame is a great rivalry," said Depaul head coach Doug Bruno. "When you are in the Midwest, the three Catholic schools between Milwaukee with Marquette, DePaul in Chicago, and Notre Dame in South Bend, it's a Catholic three‑team mini league, if you will. So it's a great rivalry, and these players understand the intensity of the rivalry. It always means more than just another college basketball game."
Preview of a Championship
Connecticut and Notre Dame will meet for the Big East Championship for the first time in 10 years (7:00 PM ESPN). The last time they met was the infamous "Bird at the Buzzer" game. A game in which Skylar Diggins remembers well.
"That game against Connecticut, where Sue Bird made the shot over Ruth, I believe. I was a fan watching it," Diggins said. "They wrote a book about it. So I don't like that book. Obviously we know it's a great opportunity for our program. It's going to be great to play a team like that team, okay, UConn. Yeah, we've played them so many times and we know we're going to be up and ready for that game. I think this is a great game to beat a great team like that and carry the momentum into tomorrow night is going to be great. It's going to be a great atmosphere for basketball. We'll be up and excited and hopefully we'll come out with a championship and one for Coach McGraw."
UConn and Notre Dame have already played twice this season including a 79-76 loss at home and 78-57 loss in Connecticut. Notre Dame might be without the services of senior post Becca Bruszewski who injured her ribs in a collision under the basket with Depaul's Hampton. Muffet McGraw said her status is doubtful.
History might not repeat itself with buzzer beaters but we can only hope. ‘Hartley at the Buzzer?' Anyone?