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Preview: UConn, the real-life hunchback of Notre Dame

The battle for No. 1 in Division I women’s college basketball takes place this Sunday, Dec. 2, at 4:00 p.m. ET, as the Huskies head to South Bend to take on the Fighting Irish.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Notre Dame vs Connecticut
Notre Dame and UConn meet for the first time since the Fighting Irish ended the Huskies’ 2018 national title hopes in March.
Photo by: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

A silver-lined cloud hangs over the heads of the UConn Huskies, as they travel to South Bend on Sunday, Dec. 2, to play the relentless Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a rematch of the 2018 Final Four.

Of the 24 meetings between the two programs since 2008, UConn leads the series, 16-8, including two flurries of win streaks (2008-11, 2013-17). As for Notre Dame, its luck did a complete 360, starting with an overtime win in 2012.

And while there’s some truth in history, this particular matchup at this particular time is unspeakable, regardless of what angle it’s looked at. Even with the loss of Azura Stevens, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams to the WNBA, UConn still has a right to compete with Notre Dame in the 2018 Jimmy V Classic.

At the end of the day, the game will be decided by how Notre Dame contains UConn’s perimeter shooting and how UConn treats Notre Dame’s love for fast breaks and points in the paint.

Five numbers behind the UConn-Notre Dame rivalry

22 — Years both Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw have coached the rivalry

1996 — Year of UConn’s first-ever regular season win against Notre Dame (87-64, on Jan. 18)

2001 — Year of Notre Dame’s first-ever postseason win against UConn (90-75, on Mar. 30)

3 — Extra quarters it took for Notre Dame to win against UConn on Mar. 4, 2013

7 — Times that UConn and Notre Dame have met in the postseason since 2001*

* Source note: Jump to page 166 for women’s basketball stats.

A tale of two cities

Will offense or defense dictate Sunday’s victor?

1. Notre Dame’s convoy of talent is UConn’s worst nightmare.

The production from Jackie Young, Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner is nearly identical to the 2012-13 Miami Heat roster that relied on several players to win the 2013 NBA Finals.

Compared to UConn, Notre Dame has a distinct height advantage, which will push, pull and stretch at the Huskies’ resources. Another advantage is that Notre Dame is extremely good at scoring in the paint — out-performing opponents in that category, 152-90, across three games.

All things considered, that applies more importance in delegating player matchups over whole-team strategies. Here are the cases in point:

Katie Lou Samuelson (6-foot-3) vs. Jessica Shepard (6-foot-4)

It’s no surprise that Katie Lou Samuelson will be the centrifugal force behind UConn. Because of her impact on offense, Auriemma may “protect” that part of her game by switching Samuelson with Olivia Nelson-Ododa or Kyla Irwin down below to preserve points. And while Samuelson’s very versatile, the paint is not her natural habitat.

Napheesa Collier (6-foot-2) vs. Brianna Turner (6-foot-3)

Like Samuelson, Collier’s dinner plate will be pretty full. Not only will she have to worry about Brianna Turner, but also Young and Ogunbowale, who each charge the basket like medieval jousters. Overall, Collier is stupidly good at challenging the board at both ends of the court, which has helped her double-double campaign this season.

Crystal Dangerfield (5-foot-5) / Megan Walker (6-foot-1) vs. Arike Ogunbowale (5-foot-8)

In this 2-on-1 matchup, Crystal Dangerfield has the quickness to not fall behind Ogunbowale, but lacks the size to contest shots. However, Walker does compensate for that downside with a large enough wingspan to reduce Ogunbowale’s plane of vision. More importantly, Ogunbowale loves to trail blaze, so Dangerfield and Walker may have to play a game of Ring Around the Rosy.

Megan Walker (6-foot-1) vs. Jackie Young (6-foot-0)

So long as Megan Walker avoids foul trouble, she’ll be an effective prescription in managing Young. Most recently, Walker scored 13 points in 28 minutes against DePaul, but she is widely used in helping Collier out with rebounds. She’ll likely get some assistance from Dangerfield and Samuelson, but only if one-on-one situations go awry. Walker also essentially replaces Kia Nurse in terms of size and player assignment.

Christyn Williams (5-foot-11) vs. Marina Mabrey (5-foot-11) / Abby Prohaska (5-foot-10)

Marina Mabrey is more of an anchor rather than a standout, but she’s probably okay with that given the support cushion of her teammates. Nevertheless, it’s her last year to find footing in a high-paced, roll-up-your-sleeves offense that has a bottomless depth chart. Mabrey’s and Abby Prohaska’s challenger, Christyn Williams, is making a name for herself at her own pace in Storrs after a season-high 13 points against DePaul on Nov. 28.

2. With this collision course, do opposites attract?

You’d think scoring an average of 80 points per game would overshadow the fact that opponents have a hard time getting over 50, right? Well, with a team that’s littered with do-gooders on offense, there are just as many bragging rights to be had on defense. UConn’s best example of that is allowing only 63 points to DePaul, who — prior to playing UConn — had outscored the Huskies, 656-406.

Notre Dame, already with four games of 100-plus points scored, is on the same trajectory. Unfortunately for UConn, four Notre Dame players scored over 14 points each against Iowa, while 21 assists came via team effort. Rebounds were also a big part of the playbook, as 51 percent of them happened on the offensive front — a season-first for Notre Dame.

Hypothetically, if UConn’s potent defense wants to stall Notre Dame’s unforgiving offense, then a taller lineup would be the best solution. That would mean less playing time for Dangerfield, but having her available is like putting Adam Banks up against Iceland in D2: The Mighty Ducks — injecting some NOS into the lineup is crucial. Then again, Collier is her own breed of defense this year, so Dangerfield’s time won’t be affected.

3. Don’t bring a turnover to a rebound fight.

During the Vancouver Showcase, Notre Dame collected over 100 rebounds, while UConn’s 16 turnovers kept St. John’s at an unnecessarily close distance at the Paradise Jam.

Statistically, UConn’s one of the nation’s worst teams in turning the ball over, yet wins haven’t been impacted. On the other side, the holy grail of Notre Dame’s existence is rebounds. Currently, the Fighting Irish are among the nation’s top 20 teams in defensive rebounds per game, which is expected of a vertically-built roster.

4. Is there a free lunch in store for either UConn or Notre Dame?

Both teams are very disciplined in fouls committed, but there have been instances when their opponents could have run away with the game. For example, Notre Dame let Oregon State reach the stripe 23 times, which resulted in 16 uncontested points. Similarly, UConn gave Ohio State 16 freebies from the foul line.

There may be no escape from fouls, however, especially if clock management becomes a factor late in the fourth quarter.

5. UConn’s threes will not make the bells of Notre Dame sing.

During the Final Four, Notre Dame did what other teams couldn’t do: keep UConn humble from beyond the arc. Of the 24 attempted triples, only nine went through in UConn’s 89-91 overtime loss. On the road to a Dec. 3 win in Hartford, the Huskies converted 8-of-17 three-point attempts.

Though their roster has undergone changes, the Huskies’ appetite for threes hasn’t, turning 51-of-122 attempts into points, making them a spitting image of the Golden State Warriors. If the Huskies maintain a threes-to-field goals ratio by even a marginal difference of 20 percent, or by attempting a total of 15-20 threes, then odds of winning increase.

UConn Huskies at Notre Dame Fighting Irish

When: Sunday, Dec. 2, at 4:00 p.m. ET

Where: Purcell Pavilion, South Bend, IN

How to tune in: ESPN, 97-9 ESPN

Injury report: For UConn, Batouly Camara (sprained MCL) is out. For Notre Dame, Kaitlyn Gilbert (shoulder) will sit.