If women's basketball needed a showcase game this UConn at Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon was it.
A game on broadcast television, a game in front of a sold out crowd even if a blizzard kept a few of the paid seats empty, a game with over one hundred fifty combined points, and a back and forth game that came down to the final possession. This time CBS got the game they were hoping for.
Part of it is that Notre Dame is a model women's basketball program when it comes to building a fan base.
The program has been successful on the court. The program has been consistently good for a long period of time and had its moments of greatness, winning a national championship a decade ago in a dream season and getting to another Final Four a few years earlier, although they haven't reached the heights of the superpowers of women's basketball Tennessee and UConn. And because they share the Big East conference with UConn the chances of winning conference championships are slim.
Yet without being a super power Notre Dame has still built a fan base that places it among the nation's leaders in attendance through a long standing quality product, outreach, and high production values. Purcell Pavilion was a great stage for this game, an environment as challenging as what UConn faced against Stanford, and Notre Dame ahd every reason to believe a similar outcome was possible. While Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has only four wins against UConn, three have come in a year where UConn went to the Final Four. She knows how to make UConn's life difficult.
The opening minute of the game immediately established that an upset was possible. UConn committed four fouls in the first seventy seconds of the game. At that moment it felt like Notre Dame could be in the bonus within a few minutes and continuing to build a lead at the free throw line, but UConn's Tiffany Hayes and Kelly Faris regained temporary momentum by drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line themselves on consecutive possessions. That at least prevented UConn from digging what could have been a huge early hole.
With the offense sluggish in trying to find Maya Moore shots much like it was in the loss against Stanford, Geno Auriemma subbed Moore out five minutes into the game. In the four minutes that Maya Moore sat on the bench - a period of time that felt significantly longer - the other UConn players found themselves in a situation where they had to score by themselves. And this time they rose to the occasion, erasing a five point deficit and tying the game while Moore sat on the bench. Six different UConn players scored during those four minutes.
Notre Dame would immediately retake the lead, but they could never gain more than a four point lead as the teams traded baskets over the next eight minutes. UConn would retake the lead at 34-33 with three and half minutes left in the first half on a driving layup in traffic by Maya Moore, but UConn could not build a lead either and Notre Dame would tie the game on free throws by Skylar Diggins before the end of the first half.
The second half began similarly to the first with UConn quickly committing foul after foul. The team committed six fouls within the first four minutes of the first half, which meant Notre Dame would be shooting free throws after every foul for the rest of the game. UConn guard Tiffany Hayes also picked up her fourth personal foul less than two minutes into the half and had to be taken out of the game. With sixteen minutes left in the game Notre Dame was in excellent position to capitalize on UConn's foul trouble by both getting to the free throw line with the bonus and by putting the UConn player son the bench with fouls.
That never materialized as UConn only committed two more fouls the rest of the game, which resulted in only three Notre Dame free throw attempts. Even without the aid of free throw attempts, Notre Dame was able to open a seven point lead tying the largest lead of the game in a two minute span after the teams traded baskets over the first four minutes of the half. UConn would quickly score the next seven points to tie the game again with eleven minutes left. UConn guard Kelly Faris scored five of the the seven points coming. Just one of the many times Faris made big scoring plays for UConn in this game.
For the last eleven minutes the game the two teams were within three points, one possession, of each other except for a brief forty seconds where Notre Dame took a five point. Each time one team threatened to pull away the other team would come up with the defensive stop or basket needed to keep the game neck and neck. UConn played from behind until Maya Moore hit a game-tying three followed by a go ahead three within thirty seconds of each other to give UConn a three point lead at 67-64 with 7:28 left in the game. It was UConn's first lead since the opening minutes of the half.
And once again Notre Dame reclaimed the lead and maintained it until the final minute of the game behind the play of veteran players Natalie Novosel, Devereaux Peters, and Becca Bruszewski. UConn always kept the game within one possessions however thanks to their own veteran players Faris, Hayes, and Moore. Even in that final minute the game was back and forth.
Maya Moore put UConn ahead 75-74 with a jumper. Notre Dame's Natalie Novosel knocked down a matching jumper to put her team back on top. Then UConn found Kelly Faris cutting back door for a layup with fourteen seconds left. Skylar Diggins tried to match for Notre Dame with a jumper following a drive to the elbow. UConn freshman center Stefanie Dolson - who Auriemma said struggled all game with the athleticism of the Notre Dame post players - captured the rebound with three seconds left and was fouled. The 6'5" freshman is excellent from the charity stripe and she calmly knocked down both ends of the one and one. Skylar Diggins would get more chance to manufacture a game tying shot, but she could not get it to fall and letting UConn escape with a three point road victory, 79-76.
Free Throws Were Key
The major story from this game revolves around fouls and free throws. Notre Dame's inability to capitalize more on UConn's early foul trouble in each half is a significant story in a three point game as discussed previously, but UConn was also able to get to the free throw line which they could not do against Stanford.
Notre Dame made 20 out of 25 free throw attempts. A high volume and a great percentage, but UConn attempted two more free throw attempts than Notre Dame and made 26 out of 27 attempts. Maya Moore not only went to the line seven times, but made them all. And Kelly Faris who knows how to get to the free throw line, despite not being a scorer was aggressive at doing just that. Faris would make all ten of her free throw attempts.
For a UConn program that through the years has often struggled to both get to the free throw line and make their free throws it was a banner day, including Dolson's free throws to seal the game. And the excellence of this particular team at the line when they actually can get themselves there could allow them to overachieve this season.
Kelly Faris stated it well in the post game, "If we can get to the line we are decent, but a lot of times we don't try to get to the the line like we should. That's one thing we really have to bear down on and use more in our game. We have to get to the line more because we are a pretty good shooting team from the foul line, and we don't use that enough. Tonight we were 26 of 27, so that was a big part of our win tonight and we need to learn from that."
Maya Moore and Kelly Faris Lead UConn
To be honest the only two players that UConn can consistently count on are Maya Moore and Kelly Faris. Moore may score 3000 points in her college career and Faris may not score even 1000, but they both are consistent because they bring the same effort and intensity level every game. They both impact the game without scoring with their ability to make plays on defense, get to loose balls, and pass the ball on offense.
On a night when Moore at times appeared to be bottled up she finished with an efficient 31 points even though she committed six turnovers. In the second half particularly she found different ways to score, and she came through with her usual three point baskets in that thirty second span that was one of many key momentum shits in the game. The best player in college basketball was for the most part exactly that tonight.
However, Kelly Faris was probably the individual star of the game. Faris had one of the best games of her career playing in her home state of Indiana playing much of the game against another Indiana star from her high school class in Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins. The guard that averaged four points per game as a freshman scored twenty points on the ten free throw attempts, two big threes, a fast break layup, and the go ahead layup in the final seconds off of a back door cut. This came after scoring 19 points in the loss at Stanford.
When asked about that "game winning" layup Faris quickly deflected credit as usual, "I don't look at it as a game winner. It takes a pass, a screen, all the little things to pull a game out." Faris has long been the most of the little things, the little things that helped her have a significant impact in last spring's Final Four despite not scoring a single point and the little things that helped her win four State Championships in high school.
What's Ahead for Notre Dame
Notre Dame missed a great opportunity, and you could feel the disappointment from Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame players Skylar Diggins and Devereaux Peters after the game. In fact, "terribly disappointed" is how McGraw began her post game comments.
Notre Dame's three leading scorers did all have their moments in this game and all three finished with at least sixteen points. Natalie Novosel hit some big shots from the wing, particuarly in the second half. Point guard Skylar Diggins was able to break down UConn's defense at times to make plays for herself and her teammates both in the full and half court. Devereaux Peters at times dominated UConn with their length and athleticism on the way to 17 points and 11 rebounds. After the game she said she took advantage of UConn's tendency to rely on athleticism to rebound, rather than boxing out and holding position. UConn gave up 23 offensive rebounds to Notre Dame and UConn was caught leaking out a number of times instead of staying back to secure the long defensive rebound.
Going forward Notre Dame still has a dynamic playmaker with in Diggins, Novosel on the wing as well as other solid players, and three athletic and versatile 6'3" post players in Devereaux Peters, Becca Bruszewski, and Canadian freshman Natalie Achonwa.
Peters continues to regain the elite athleticism she had prior to ACL injuries. Bruszewski, known as Bruiser, is a physical presence and like another physical presence - Bill Laimbeer - she can step outside and make jump shots. Achonowa is long and skilled player with experience playing for the Canadian senior national team with the potential to be a real difference maker for Notre Dame.
This team is not as experienced or deep as last season's veteran Notre Dame squad, but the pieces fit well together. There is at least the potential for Oklahoma like run to Final Four if they can continue to improve as the season progresses.