The 2015 Women's national Championship game matched the most efficient offense in the country, UConn (1.24 points per possession) against the second most efficient offense in the country, Notre Dame (1.08 ppp). Predictably, when the two best offenses meet, its the better defense that wins the game, and UConn was the better defense on the season (.67 ppp vs. .81) and the night, winning its third consecutive national championship 63-53.
Tournament Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart led the Huskies with 15 rebounds, including 12 defensive rebounds, and 4 blocked shots. Her length inside effected numerous shots, especially dribble penetration by the Notre Dame guards.
The defensive catalyst, however, was point guard Moriah Jefferson who pestered All-American Jewell Loyd into 4-for-18 shooting and held her to 12 points and only 1 assist. Jefferson fronted, denied, and generally tormented the All-American. Jefferson was credited with only 2 steals, but that belies her impact on the game.
Late in the game, Notre Dame committed a turnover on a bounce that bounced off Loyd's hands and out of bounds. Jefferson's hounding of Loyd on consecutive possessions caused the turnover.
"I thought she was a great defender tonight. I thought she made things hard for Jewell. We weren't able to really get anything going, because most of our offense runs through Jewell. And she really did a great job denying her the ball," Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said.
With Loyd unable to get off track, besides two terrific first-half drives and a ridiculous one-footed jump shot from the elbow, the Irish offense spurted. Freshman sensation Brianna Turner was scoreless and attempted only one shot in the first half, but led the Irish in scoring with 14 second-half points, many from high-low looks or offensive rebounds. Outside of Turner's 7-for-9 shooting, the rest of the Irish shot 14-for-54. Notre Dame finished with 17 turnovers to only 11 assists.
"I thought it was mostly their defense. We had a couple of layups we missed, but overall I thought it was mostly their defense," McGraw said, giving much-deserved credit to UConn.
McGraw worked her coaching magic in the National Semifinal, using a triangle-and-2 to stifle All-American Tiffany Mitchell. In the championship game, Notre Dame started in its man defense and switched screens, especially when UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (KML) was involved.
Loyd shadowed KML and gave her no space to shoot early in the game, while Turner was tasked with defending the National Player of the Year Stewart. Turner and the Irish held Stewart to 8 points on 8 shots and did not allow her to get to the free throw line.
"I thought Brianna Turner did a great matchup on her. That was the matchup we were hoping for. She was able to stay out of foul trouble, and I thought made it difficult for Bri to get any shots. And I thought just did a great job both guarding on the outside and the inside," McGraw said.
After a slow start, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma used KML to back screen the screener in a side on-ball screen. Loyd had to hold for a second to prevent UConn's Morgan Tuck from getting a layup, and that was all the time that KML needed to know down her first three-pointer and give UConn the lead at 14-11, a lead it would never relinquish. It was only one of the key offensive adjustments that Auriemma made to get his team going against the stingy Irish defense.
When UConn substituted Kiah Stokes for Kia Nurse to go to its big lineup, Notre Dame countered with its triangle-and-2 defense. In the first half, the defense had a positive effect. The big lineup has been effective for UConn in the tournament and tends to lead to one of the vaunted UConn runs that ends games early. UConn never had that run in the first half, but Auriemma adjusted in the second half.
Most teams do not know how to play against a triangle-and-2, which is one reason for its effectiveness. Notre Dame used Madison Cable, who played so well against Mitchell on Sunday night, or Hannah Huffman against the much taller Stewart, and Loyd against KML, which left Lindsay Allen, Taya Reimer, and Turner in the zone.
Auriemma moved Stokes, Nurse, and Jefferson to one side of the court to distort the triangle. On one possession, with the triangle unsure how to defend the offensive triangle on the right side of the court, Stokes set a screen to get Stewart a short jump shot.
On the next possession, Stewart posted up against Loyd, who gives away 6 inches, and Loyd attempted to front, expecting weak-side help due to the triangle defense. Tuck flashed to the top of the key, and Reimer was stuck: Stay low to provide help for the lob pass to Stewart or follow Tuck to the top of the key and leave Loyd isolated on the block.
There was no other weak-side help because KML was the other offensive player on the weak-side, and her defender was standing next to her at the three-point line. Reimer hesitated before attempting to close out to Tuck, but Tuck knocked down 1 of her 2 three-pointers on the night.
Notre Dame shifted back to its man defense after a timeout because of the offensive adjustments by Auriemma. He exploited the weakness of the junk defense and created the shots that he wanted.
The quick 5-point run and a later 5-point run on a KML three-pointer in transition followed by a long jump shot by KML on a high on-ball screen prevented Notre Dame from moving any closer than 6 points late in the second half. Just as Notre Dame seemed to collect itself, usually through a Turner basket, these mini-runs extended the lead and created the separation that the Huskies needed to finish off the Irish for the third straight season.
"I was relatively pleased. We held them to 63 points. That's probably a season low for them, I would guess. And our problem is the offense; we couldn't score," said McGraw.
UConn's previous season-low was 70 points against St. John's in its first game of 2015. Unfortunately for the Irish, the defensive effort was not enough. Despite their reputations for offensive efficiency, it was the UConn defense, #1 in defensive efficiency on the season, that proved to be the difference, led on this night by Jefferson.