South Bend, IN -- Thanks to construction, the 135 miles drive from Indianapolis to South Bend took a lot longer than the two hours you might expect. Perhaps similarly Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma thought it took longer than he would have liked for his team to get its act together at sold out Purcell Pavilion on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana.
For the first 10 minutes of the game, the crowd of 9,149 mostly partisan Irish fans were salivating over their team's crisp execution. Jewell Loyd was leading the charge with 15 points, making her first five shots and looking every bit the All-American candidate. The Huskies looked somewhat tentative missing not only threes but also lay-ups. The Irish fast break looked like a thing of beauty with the score 28-18 at the 10:13 mark of the first half.
The Huskies called a time-out shortly thereafter and it was as if the real team had just arrived. Connecticut went on a 16-0 run over the next six minutes, giving them a 34-28 lead. The lead went as high as 10 with 35 seconds left in the half on a layup by Gabby Williams. A pair of Loyd free throws cut the lead and gave us the halftime score of 40-32.
So what happened? Connecticut changed its defense and threw the Irish scoring machine out of whack. Coach Auriemma was a little coy as to what the adjustments were, perhaps not wanting to give away anything for a future rematch.
"We changed up what our man to man looked like," Auriemma said.
When a reporter hinted it might be a zone, Auriemma responded, "We are not a great zone team."
Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw was more to the point in diagnosing it as a "sagging man."
Regardless of what you call it, the Irish players weren't sure if they were facing a zone or not and their shots became of less quality. For the half, Loyd scored a team leading 17 points but missed her last six shots after making those five early ones.
The Huskies were led in scoring by Morgan Tuck with 10 but had three other teammates with seven or eight. Behind Loyd, the next Irish player had only six. For the half, the visitors shot 50% from the field while the hosts registered on a miserable 28.9%.
The Huskies never really took the proverbial foot off the pedal in the second half. Only at the 18:37 mark did the lead dip below 10 (42-34) on a Taya Reimer layup. After that, Connecticut went on an eight to zero run (with three different people scoring), putting the score 50-34 at the 16:26 mark. The lead never got below thirteen the rest of the way.
Central issues for the game were board dominance by the Huskies with Kiah Stokes totally in charge with a career high 18 boards plus four blocks. Scoring-wise she took just three shots collecting six points total. Team-wise it was 52-34 edge to the visitors, mostly collecting Irish misses. The Huskies only had two more offensive rebounds. Obviously the Irish missed star freshman Brianna Turner, averaging 13.4 ppg and 5.4 rebounds per game. Currently she is listed "day to day" with a shoulder injury.
The scoring star of the night was Morgan Tuck with a career high 25 points on 12 for 19 from the field plus nine boards. Post-game Coach McGraw credited Tuck with "being the difference in the game." She indicated they were trying to guard Tuck but couldn't. Coach Auriemma praised Tuck as his team leader.
McGraw lamented, "When things went bad only Jewell wanted the ball. We just kind of crumbled when Tuck drove. We need to get tougher."
In looking at the scoring, it is pretty obvious that Loyd needed more help. Yes, she led all scorers with 31 points (fourth 30+ point performance for the Irish) but is was on 10 for 27 which is a so-so 37%. Lindsay Allen was the only other Notre Dame player in double figures with 11 points. Besides Tuck three other Huskies (Stewart 15, Mosqueda-Lewis 12, and Nurse 12) hit double figures.
The one area Notre Dame won was the turnover battle where the Irish had 18 to the Huskies 24. Coach Auriemma was clearly not pleased with this in referring to the play of Moriah Jefferson and Kia Nurse who combined for 11 turnovers.
Auriemma credited his team in "making a lot of progress [since the Stanford game.]" As for the season in general, he described the situation at the top of the sport as "topsy-turvy" suggesting no clear frontrunner for the national title. To beg to differ, today showed the NCAA championship still goes through Storrs.