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NCAAW Final Four Preview: Can Notre Dame repeat last season’s national semifinal performance against UConn?

Although the Huskies grabbed the victory when these teams met in December, a lot can change on a bigger stage — something UConn now knows all too well.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Notre Dame vs Connecticut
Arike Ogunbowale sent UConn home with her game-winning shot in last season’s Final Four. Can the Fighting Irish put away the Huskies more comfortably this time?
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

UConn knows its 89-71 win over Notre Dame earlier this season won’t hold much weight in tonight’s rematch — even though it was in South Bend, and even though the Huskies managed an all-out team effort that they have the pieces to replicate.

Why? Just look at how last season ended.

After a 2017 campaign that was defined by a single historic loss in the Final Four, the idea that UConn would clean things up and return to its national title glory seemed to be a foregone conclusion. But then it happened again: a last-second shot to end to the Huskies’ season in the national semifinal, this time delivered by postseason hero Arike Ogunbowale.

In tonight’s 50th meeting between these storied programs, the biggest question — besides who will win — is whether fans will be treated to both teams at their absolute best. That is, will we get a repeat of last season, or a repeat of December’s relatively one-sided affair?

Why Notre Dame can win

December’s meeting with UConn saw the Fighting Irish keep pace with the Huskies at first, despite less-than-stellar first-half performances from the Irish’s best players. But as head coach Muffet McGraw put it after the game: “We’re a better team than we showed.” And that much has shown to be true ever since.

The Irish went on a 12-game winning streak after that loss, which included a 14-point win over fellow tournament one-seed Louisville. And while their other two losses on the season were to much lower-caliber competition — North Carolina and Miami — the Irish have been on yet another tear since, winning 13 in a row and not scoring fewer than 84 points in that span.

If that December loss was just one bad game, the chances of Notre Dame having another one like that are low, especially considering the momentum they’re riding. All five starters ended up with double-digit efforts in that game. But all five of UConn’s starters did, too. Stepping up their offensive effort could be enough for Notre Dame to move past the Huskies this time around.

Why UConn can win

In a season of ups and downs for the Huskies — which still feels a bit awkward to say, considering they’ve only lost two games — it seems as if they’re getting things together at just the right time.

While Christyn Williams hasn’t had another offensive explosion like she did earlier this season against Notre Dame, there are always more UConn players ready to fill in the blanks. Namely, Katrina McClain Award winner (for the nation’s best power forward) Napheesa Collier has had a stretch of 20-plus-point games lately. And when Collier only managed 12 points against Louisville in the Elite Eight, Katie Lou Samuelson was there to pick up the slack, scoring 29 points of her own.

Samuelson — whose senior season has been marred by injury and sporadic scoring slumps, especially from her comfort zone beyond the arc — put together a vintage effort against Louisville. Her seven made three-pointers marked her second-highest total this season, and her 12 attempts from beyond the arc were tied for her most in 2018-19, suggestive of a much-needed confidence boost.

With their key players at 100 percent, the Huskies have a solid chance of advancing to their first national title game since 2016. But, of course, they’ll have to get through the defending champions first.

NCAAW Tournament — Final Four (Game 2)

No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 2 UConn Huskies

When: Friday, April 5, at 9:30 p.m. ET

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, FL

How to watch: ESPN2

NCAAW National Championship

National Championship

When: Sunday, April 7, at 6 p.m. ET

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, FL

How to watch: ESPN, WatchESPN

More ways to watch the games

Want to watch in person? Final Four tickets can be found here.