SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma welcomed entering Sunday's game "unencumbered." For once, his Huskies weren't considered the favorites. There was no long winning streak on the line, either. Just a game they wanted to play well in in a rivalry that they've usually gotten the best of over the years.
UConn freshman Christyn Williams certainly didn't look like anything was weighing her down. In her first visit to Purcell Pavilion, she walked in like she owned the building, and she and the Huskies left with an 89-71 victory over the defending national champions and what's sure to be the No. 1 ranking again come Monday.
In other words, what else is new? The Huskies now lead the series 37-12 and have another standout to showcase, too. Williams finished with 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field, 4-of-5 from the free throw line. She didn't have any rebounds, and had only one assist, but, hey, she's got to save something to improve on.
"She adds a really big dimension to our team," Auriemma said. "With Notre Dame, you have to match their aggressiveness, and you have to attack their defense the way they attack yours. And Christyn does that. She's fearless and you saw that. I was upset we didn't give [the ball] to her more in the second quarter. She was carrying our team."
Talk about making a great impression in your first marquee game. With all the spotlight on these two teams, who battled to overtime with Notre Dame winning on a buzzer-beater in the national semifinals last season, the star of the day was a kid who was just watching that epic game. She was still in high school in Arkansas, waiting her turn to be the latest in a long line of Huskies heroes.
"I was at home, and she hit the shot, and I was just devastated," Williams said of Arike Ogunbowale's game-winner for Notre Dame last March. "I wished I could be out there to help. And today, I got my chance to."
Williams was the No. 1 recruit in the country, a 5-foot-11 guard with speed, savvy and silky moves. Sunday, she looked like she was made for games like this one. She scored seven of the Huskies' first 10 baskets, gliding in for layups in transition and knocking down two 3-pointers.
Williams had 16 points in the first half, which came in especially handy because UConn leading scorer Katie Lou Samuelson was scoreless in the first half, going 0-for-7 from the field.
Auriemma had said prior to the game that he wanted Williams and other young Huskies to be in situations where, "They are guarding somebody they can't guard." He figured that would be great experience for them. But the Irish were the ones who found themselves struggling to guard Williams.
Was she nervous before such a big game before a sold-out crowd?
"I was ready for it," Williams said. "This is something I dreamed of. This game -- I've dreamed of playing in it. So I was really just excited to be out there. I treated it like a regular game. If you think of it as a [big deal], then you will get butterflies. So I try not to think of it that way, and it really helps me."
That said, Williams also understands that it means a lot to win a game like this so early. And she knows not to look ahead too far, even though she has talked already about wanting to win a national championship as a freshman. She has since expressed some remorse about sounding so sure that it would happen, but in truth, Auriemma doesn't mind that. He has had players before who are OK with taking that kind of weight on their shoulders because they believe they can deliver the goods.
"Some people just know who they are. And she knows who she is," he said of Williams. "Some people want to be that, but deep down in their heart, they know they're not. She knows she is."
Williams put the Irish on their heels from the start of the game, and they spent the rest of it playing catch-up. And they never caught up. What was expected to be a close game, in which Notre Dame was favored, turned into another Huskies rout. They have won their games in the series by an average of 15.7 points.
Jackie Young led Notre Dame with 18 points, but the Irish defense -- which coach Muffet McGraw said before the game that she was worried about -- fell short.
"I thought a lot of the problems we've been having all year long really surfaced again," McGraw said. "This time, the team we played was good enough to take advantage of it. Our transition defense was poor. Our half-court defense was poor. Offensively, I thought our execution was poor. And then we lost our poise. That was unexpected. I was really disappointed to see the veterans we have not rise to the occasion.
"I thought Christyn Williams was phenomenal. She played just an incredible game. And really was the difference in the game."
Indeed, Williams caused a good deal of Irish angst. In the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame was trying to rally, Williams' three-point play with 7:40 left put UConn up by one, 71-62. She clenched her fists in celebration on the floor after being fouled, and then got up and made the free throw. She was that matter-of-fact about everything all game.
Samuelson came around in the second half and finished with 15 points and six assists, and senior Napheesa Collier had 16 points and 15 rebounds. Both seniors were proud of Williams.
"That's something I wish I would have had as a freshman," Collier said of the confidence Williams is showing this early in her career. "It's good that she's already playing that way. Because that means she can learn and grow so much faster than someone who is playing scared."
UConn did not get any of its top recruiting targets for next season, which prompted a lot of kvetching from worried Huskies fans in the past week. But UConn looks to have quite a gem in Williams, who has only just begun her college career. Great news for the Huskies -- and scary for everyone else.
"And this is the worst she's ever going to be, right? She's a freshman, so she's going to get better from here," Auriemma said, and then with impeccable comic timing added, "Wait until she learns some of our plays."