TAMPA, Fla. — After Notre Dame defeated Connecticut in the Final Four on Friday, Coach Muffet McGraw, wearing a shirt as shiny as the university’s Golden Dome, did a jig of sorts on the court.
There were plenty of reasons to celebrate after the Irish advanced to their second straight N.C.A.A. women’s basketball title game.
[Read about Baylor’s win over the Oregon Ducks.]
Once again, they had upended the game’s longtime powerhouse in a national semifinal. In a Final Four classic last year, Notre Dame beat UConn on a last-second overtime shot by Arike Ogunbowale. Friday’s 81-76 win for the Irish was a fitting encore, with similar back-and-forth drama.
They will try to repeat as champions on Sunday, when they face Baylor in a rematch of the 2012 final, which the Lady Bears won easily.
For UConn, this was the third consecutive year of falling a win short of reaching the championship game. Coach Geno Auriemma had poked fun at suggestions that the Huskies reached a down cycle after winning four straight titles and 111 consecutive games until the 2017 Final Four.
“We had a lot of adversity this year. We lost two games,” Auriemma said before Friday’s defeat turned the Huskies’ record to 35-3.
Though he acknowledged on Friday that the Irish were the better team, Auriemma reminded reporters twice of his dynasty at UConn, which includes 11 national titles.
“We knew coming in there’s things Notre Dame does that we don’t have an answer for. I’ve had those kind of teams a couple of times,” he said smiling.
The lead changed hands 26 times between the Irish and the Huskies, almost mirroring the earlier semifinal, in which Baylor barely escaped a tenacious Oregon team.
Early in the fourth quarter, UConn surged to a 9-point lead. “We had Coach a little bit stressed,” Notre Dame forward Jessica Shepard said.
That deficit, Auriemma said, could have rattled a lesser team, but not the Irish.
“Why? Because they’re defending national champions,” he said. “They have five all-Americans who are really, really good. Like I said, I remember being in that situation a couple of times.”
The Irish kept their composure, and key defensive plays by the senior forward Brianna Turner plus big shots from Ogunbowale changed the momentum.
“She’s almost an impossible matchup one-on-one,” Auriemma said of Ogunbowale.
After a quiet first half with just 2 points, Ogunbowale exploded in the final 20 minutes, finishing with 23. Turner had 15 points and 5 blocks, setting the school’s career blocks record with 371.
“That was the key. The girl was amazing,” McGraw said about Turner’s defense.
When the Irish won the national title last year, Turner was out with a knee injury, which made this victory especially meaningful. Now she has a chance to win a national title of her own.
A healthy Turner contributed a lot this season, and she will be called upon against Baylor’s seemingly indomitable duo in the post, Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox.
“She gives us just a totally different look,” McGraw said. “What she can do defensively, she can switch out and guard the point guard, she can certainly guard the post. She’s a shot-blocking presence inside. I think it makes us a little more dominant inside, which won’t be so dominant against Baylor because they’re equally talented in the post.”
A day after giving a passionate speech about gender inequality and the need for more female leaders, McGraw took note that both coaches in the final are women. The last time that happened was in 2012, when McGraw also faced Baylor’s Kim Mulkey.
Though that was significant to McGraw, she quickly turned the conversation back to the task at hand.
“This weekend is really all about basketball,” she said. “So we really want to focus on that.”