No two teams in the country are more familiar with one another than Connecticut and Notre Dame. The Big East rivals have met seven times in the last two seasons. It would have made for a heck of an NBA Finals. The 3-3 tie was broken by UConn at the Big East tournament final a month ago, yet Notre Dame still has the biggest win of the bunch, last season's upset in the Final Four, which denied the Huskies a shot at a third straight national championship.
Familiarity has not bred contempt or monotony. The games have been clean, largely well-played and interesting. Now these two teams present Round 8.
Notre Dame is the second-leading scoring team in the country. No one allows fewer points than Connecticut. A classic contrast in styles, right?
Well, yes, but not exactly. Those rankings are only part of the story.
While offensive efficiency is clearly the best part of the Irish, and defensive stinginess has been UConn's calling card, it isn't that simple. Notre Dame plays defense, too, allowing a mere 51.5 points per game (fifth in the nation). And the Huskies can put the ball in the basket. Only five teams averaged more points per game (three of those clubs are at the Final Four).
Ultimately, it goes back to the fact that the Huskies win with defense. The offensive success is a byproduct of unselfishness and a high level of teamwork. Coach Geno Auriemma noted after the Kingston Regional final win over Kentucky that this team has no Maya Moore or Diana Taurasi to bail it out. With the possible exception of 1991 (his first Final Four team), this is the least glamorous of his elite clubs. No big superstars, no monster winning streaks. Just 33 wins and a fifth straight Final Four for the second time in his career.
The Irish, with Twitter magnet Skylar Diggins leading the way, are actually the glamour team. Coach Muffet McGraw prefers her squad to play fast, but not in a hurry. The defense is designed to quickly turn into offense with its 13 steals per game (third in the country). In the half court, Notre Dame is going to spread things out to take best advantage of Diggins' and Natalie Novosel's driving talents or high-low post game.
Brittany Mallory vs. Tiffany Hayes: Any of the individual guard matchups have the potential to turn this game. This one is important because UConn really needs a loose, confident, slashing Hayes, not a frustrated, jump-shot-settling version.
Mallory is a tough, physical defender who can disrupt Hayes' rhythm. Mallory certainly got the better of Hayes in the first meeting in South Bend and made things tough in the Big East tourney final. UConn will do much more switching on defense, mixing up the matchups. Notre Dame is more assignment-driven, so expect Mallory to guard Hayes most of the evening.
With both teams so guard-heavy, this really comes down to Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters vs. UConn's Stefanie Dolson. While the margin between the two is hardly large, the edge goes to Peters because she's better defensively.
In fact, few post players are better than her. The two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year uses her long arms and smarts to keep herself involved in almost anything happening near the basket. That includes rebounding, an area in which Peters also holds the advantage. The senior is more athletic and just covers more ground.
Dolson continues to improve, and it's remarkable what a couple of made jumpers early in some NCAA tournament games have done for her confidence. From her passing in the high post to setting the high ball screen to aggressively getting her position on the low block, the 6-foot-5 sophomore is an integral part of UConn's offense. She can't have the same impact Peters has on defense, but Dolson has become a smart, hold-her-ground rock in the middle of the lane.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
The Irish probably have the nation's best collection of guards. Connecticut's might be second. While Diggins has become one of the faces of women's college basketball -- if not the face -- her game has continued to grow. She runs the offense with absolute control and her penetration is its cornerstone. More importantly, Diggins' has become the Irish's leader, both vocally and with her play. Last year's run seems to have taught her to be unafraid.
That's also the way Novosel plays, and it's why the two teammates get to the free throw line so much (a combined 275 times). No longer underrated, Novosel's versatility as a scorer fits the system perfectly. The growth of sophomore Kayla McBride as a weapon has allowed Mallory to be that much more focused on her defense, an area where she has excelled for two years.
The roles aren't as clearly defined on the UConn side. Tiffany Hayes, Bria Hartley and Caroline Doty are virtually interchangeable. They can all handle the point and can all shoot. Three knee surgeries and a leg-swallowing brace limit Doty's ability to penetrate, but not her ability to defend and run the team.
Hayes' senior season hasn't been entirely smooth, and she is playing with a stress fracture in her foot. However, whatever criticism she has received from Auriemma had her playing against Kentucky with as much toughness and determination as she has ever displayed.
Last season Hartley was a freshman, and despite her great talent, it still seemed at every moment that she was a rookie. Just one year later, it seems that she's a 10-year veteran. When the ball is in her hands, she has a confidence that wasn't there 12 months ago.
Kelly Faris' reputation as a stat-sheet stuffer is well-established. She simply knows how to contribute, but it's on the less measurable defensive end where her value is often found. Against the Irish, she will take turns guarding Diggins and Novosel when the Huskies are in man-to-man.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Both benches are thin, but both include potentially game-changing players. UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was the Big East Freshman of the Year and is probably the Huskies' most unabashed shooter and scorer. Her confidence level has grown to its highest level late in the season. She averaged 15 points in the two games in Kingston and, while Mosqueda-Lewis' game is predicated on her jump shot, Notre Dame couldn't contain her inside the arc in the Big East final, where she led UConn with 19 points.
Sophomore Natalie Achonwa is that player for Notre Dame. She allows Peters some rest, a cushion for foul trouble or a dynamic new wrinkle to the offense. When she and Peters play together, rather than strictly spread the floor and look to penetrate, McGraw can run some high-low where Achonwa has become a much more consistent finisher on passes from Peters. Those were the sets that destroyed Maryland's resolve more than anything in the regional final.
UConn won't run as much double-post when Kiah Stokes and Dolson are in the game together, but Stokes does give UConn something it sorely missed last season -- some size to back up Dolson. Stokes won't score much, but is more than capable.
Normally, UConn has an edge on anyone it plays just by showing up. The intimidation factor alone has done a number on opponents for the last five years. Not Notre Dame. Not anymore. That breakthrough win at the Final Four in Indianapolis last April changed the dynamic. The two wins in the regular season, including one in Hartford, cemented that shift. The Irish are not fazed by any Huskies mystique. Notre Dame is experienced and plays with a confidence against UConn that almost no one else does.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Three X factors
1. Rebounding: Notre Dame pulled down 19 offensive rebounds and converted 25 second-chance points in the second meeting, a 72-59 Irish win, UConn's worst defeat in years. The Huskies cleaned that up in the Big East final, outrebounded the Irish by 11 and won the game by nine. Game 1 this season was a dead heat on the boards and it went to overtime. Guess which statistic needs to be watched closely?
2. Dolson's foul trouble: The Huskies need her on the floor. She is not UConn's best player, but an argument could be made for her being the most important. Dolson has become a centerpiece of the offense. A number of the Huskies' sets come off her ball screens or high-post passing. UConn's only other size is Stokes, who can't be relied upon to handle the ball as much as Dolson does and just isn't productive enough at this stage of her career.
3. How quickly Notre Dame gets into its offense: Connecticut's defense is predicated on one of basketball's basic principles -- stay between your opponent and the basket. It's just that the Huskies work harder at and execute it better than anyone else. If Notre Dame's possessions are regularly going deep into the shot clock, it means the Irish aren't getting the penetration they want and the Huskies are succeeding on defense. Ultimately, that battle will likely win the game.
Notre Dame. Did the Big East tournament final mean UConn had solved Notre Dame or was it the anomaly in a stretch where Notre Dame has proved itself to be the better team? The answer to that question will determine the winner.
The Irish have a bit more firepower. Two other things to watch will be whether Notre Dame is getting to the line. Auriemma loathes giving teams points on free throws, but Notre Dame thrives on it. The other is Diggins' headband. If it is still on in the second half, it means the game is going the Irish's way. She plays the karma game with that bright, white, cloth headband, and it has become the litmus test for her play and that of her team.