A look back at Tuesday’s UConn-Notre Dame game:
No. 1 UConn 73, No. 10 Notre Dame 64
TURNING POINT – The Huskies were hardly at their best in the first half. They committed 10 turnovers, were called for 10 fouls and were outrebounded 18-16. Yet, they still held a 32-31 lead at halftime.
But as it has done so often UConn regrouped in the locker room and came out looking like a different team in the second half. With the game tied at 38, Maya Moore made a 3-pointer with 17:01 left to give the Huskies the lead for good. The hoop ignited a 14-2 run.
“We wanted it,’’ Notre Dame freshman Natalie Achonwa said. “There was a little stretch where they went on a run and that killed us.’’
The Huskies finished the run by scoring 11 straight points. Moore capped the surge with another 3-pointer to give UConn a 52-40 lead with 12:44 left. Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley each added four points, while Notre Dame went scoreless for 5:17. The Irish missed 10 straight shots and committed three turnovers.
“On defense we definitely locked down and communicated more so we could get over screens,’’ Hartley said. “Then, offensively, I just think we were more aggressive. We came out, made sure we were attacking the basket and we’d draw people to the middle and just kick it out. People can hit shots and then Stef was just great there in the post. She established position and we were able to hit her in the post and she was finishing well.’’
UNSUNG HERO – I know Dolson was named to the all-tournament team. I know she set a UConn freshman record by scoring 60 points in the tournament. But, in my opinion, she can’t get enough praise for the transformation she has made this season.
Dolson tied her career-high with 24 points and had nine rebounds, two blocks and overcame exhaustion in playing all 40 minutes for the first time this season against the Irish. She also scored eight of UConn’s final 13 points, including making two free throws with 52.4 seconds left that increased the lead to 70-60.
As she stood at the free throw line a chant of “MVP, MVP, MVP’’ could be heard.
“Before I came here? Probably not. I didn’t think I could focus on anything,’’ Dolson said. “So coming in here, playing like I did, it feels good to know that all my hard work paid off, and that my mentality has gotten to this point so that I can just add to it for the tournament coming up and next year and the years coming after. I think the mental part is the hardest part. Physical … We workout every day. We practice every day. So you know that’s going to come. But I think the mental part is definitely the harder part and the part that I’ve battled with all year. I’ve definitely gotten to a great point right now, but there’s definitely still room to improve.’’
BEST ‘X’ AND/OR ‘O’ – The Huskies worked the ball inside more often in the second half, scoring 20 of their 41 points in the paint. Dolson had a team-high 14 points (6-of-9 FG) in the second half.
“I think it’s hard to win championships if you don’t have somewhat of a consistent scoring threat inside,’’ Auriemma said. “Whoever that is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a center or any particular position. I think what Stefanie has done has given us a little bit of a comfort level we didn’t have probably September, October, November, December. We were more a team that had to make jump shots and had to get out in transition. Our halfcourt offense, we weren’t as comfortable in it. Now that we have someone like her that we really can count on night in and night out, we have a chance. If she hadn’t developed to the point she’s at now, I don’t think we would have any chance going into the NCAAs.’’
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS – With the sound of the final buzzer, the Huskies could finally celebrate a gutsy win against a talented and physical opponent in the championship game. Moore, the tournament Most Outstanding Player, embraced Dolson. She told Dolson that she was her MVP. “To know that the Player of the Year, the player she is, the person she is, that someone like that would tell me I was the MVP it feels amazing,’’ Dolson said. … With respect to Moore, had the all-tournament team ballots been collected at the end of the game Dolson would have been named the MOP. Tournament officials collected the ballots during the final media timeout with 3:47 left in the game. Dolson had 18 points. Moore had 22. Dolson then came out and scored six points to help the Huskies seal the win. Several members of the media admitted afterward that they would have changed their vote in favor of Dolson. “I wanted to bring everybody up there with me,’’ Moore said of when she received the MOP trophy. “I thought that everyone played really well. I wanted to tell Stefanie to go get it. I feel a sense of satisfaction that my teammates have my back and they’re going to step up and be there and do their part. It’s something we talked about before the season, even before we started playing. It’s coming to fruition.’’ … Dolson delivered one of the biggest plays of the game when she made a layup with 2:29 left. With the Huskies leading 64-59, Dolson worked her way through a mass of bodies in the lane to put back a missed jumper by Moore. Dolson was falling to the floor as she shot the ball. “It’s just one of the big plays that I was talking about,’’ Moore said. “She was there. She had my back in that instance. It’s all those little plays that you look back on and that makes the difference. Hustle plays, getting a loose ball, getting an offensive rebound. And that’s what I think sometimes gets overlooked is the little plays. When it comes to championships, that’s what makes the biggest difference. And that’s the mentality that we’ve seen in Stefanie and that’s exactly what everybody’s mentality has to be. Just not being tired, going after every loose ball and staying with the play. So that was a big momentum mover for us.’’ … The Huskies have three days off before returning to practice Saturday. Here’s what Moore plans to do: “Get some sleep, no alarm. Eat some pancakes,’’ she said. Auriemma is in Georgia today and will be in California Thursday tending to some recruiting business. …UConn improved to 9-0 all-time against Notre Dame in the Big East tournament. Five wins have come in the final. … Moore and Lorin Dixon became the first class in team history to complete their career with only one Big East loss (75-1). The 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2010 classes had two losses. “It definitely feels good to go out on top,’’ Moore said. “Playing our last XL game here, winning and having to grind out a win against a really good Notre Dame team and to really dominate the Big East like we did this year by getting an undefeated regular season and then winning every game in the Big East tournament it’s kind of tough to think about but I’m just proud of my team.’’ … Moore became the second player in Big East history to be honored as Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament in the same season. She also did it in 2009. Former Villanova All-American Shelly Pennefather was so honored in 1986 and 1987.
LOOKING AHEAD – The Huskies (32-1) will begin their quest for a record-tying third straight national championship March 20 at Gampel Pavilion. They will learn their exact path to Indianapolis, which is expected to go through Philadelphia, during the Selection Show Monday night on ESPN (7).
BY THE NUMBERS
29.0 – Combined points per game for Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley during the tournament
36 – Total Big East championships for UConn (19 regular season, 17 tournament)
184 – Career points for Maya Moore in the Big East tournament (15.3)