A classic rivalry delivers a classic.
The fiftieth matchup between Notre Dame and Connecticut came with the usual high stakes. This time, a trip to the NCAA title game came with the winner. And this one certainly delivered, with both teams putting up runs and finding ways to push the other to the limit, Notre Dame winning, 81-76. In other words: Notre Dame-Connecticut. What did we learn?
Jessica Shepard has a vital skill set
Jessica Shepard does many things well, but two of them truly overwhelmed Connecticut for much of the night: her ability to keep after plays until she gets the bucket, and her ability to turn defensive rebounds into good offense the other way by virtue of how she sees the floor and passes allows her skills to seamlessly transition from defense to offense.
Shepard was relentless, grabbing three offensive rebounds in the first half alone, turning and finding her teammates up the floor with long-range, yet pinpoint passes. She is as good as virtually anyone in the country at limiting mistakes, and in a game where the margin was so thin, she provided Notre Dame with an extra bit of fuel at every turn.
And it manifested itself late, too, a delightful interior pass from Turner for a finish, then a long-distance shot from just inside the arc, the latter giving Notre Dame a 74-73 lead. They’d not trail again.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa changed the game
From the moment Geno Auriemma called for Nelson-Ododa, Notre Dame lost the high ground, Nelson-Ododa changing shots, neutralizing what was Brianna Turner roaming freely around the rim. Soon after she came into the fame, Nelson-Ododa drove at Turner and saddled her with her second foul.
Nor was it a cameo for Nelson-Ododa. In the third quarter, she entered, this time for Christyn Williams, rather than Megan Walker, as had been customary of late. Four rebounds and a block later, she’d given the Huskies 12 flawless minutes, and a point guard-free lineup nevertheless got open shots to give UConn a 54-52 lead.
Katie Lou finally made one
It was an odd game for Katie Lou Samuelson, who didn’t look limited in mobility by her back, as was the case earlier in the tournament, but she wasn’t making threes or even taking many of them. But after missing her first five from deep, Samuelson managed to sink one with 1:19 left in the third quarter to put UConn up, 48-47. Between that, another three before the third quarter ended, plus three free throws after she was fouled taking one more from deep, Samuelson looked far more comfortable shooting the basketball, and by 8:19 in the fourth, she was forcing Notre Dame to cheat a step or two more. It opened up the lane for Christyn Williams, then Napheesa Collier, to extend the UConn lead to 64-55.
She continued to score inside and out, reaching the 20-point threshold yet again. Just as against Louisville, Katie Lou Samuelson wasn’t going out quietly.
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