In the NBA playoffs, a 4-0 series sweep is the aspiration of every team. Notre Dame (35-1) will have the rare opportunity to pull it off in the college game Sunday night — 9 p.m. on ESPN — against Connecticut (33-4). Most analysts will tell this might be classified as the de facto national title showdown in the Final Four, with the winner to play on Tuesday night against the Cal-Louisville winner.
Notre Dame and Connecticut have their final showdown this season, this time in the Final Four.
Each of the three previous Notre Dame-Connecticut clashes this year could have gone either way, but each time the Fighting Irish ended up with the fortuitous bounces:
• On Jan. 5 in Storrs, Conn., senior Skylar Diggins prevented UConn from salting away the game by nailing two late threes, a leaning jump shot and then hit two free throws with 49 seconds left to give the Irish the lead at 73-72. The Huskies had three chances at the end to win, but freshman Breanna Stewart had one shot blocked in the lane, missed on another and then sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed an open three.
"I think Skylar has changed things for us," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She believed we can win and has the confidence, and that is contagious."
• On March 4 at Notre Dame, the epic triple-overtime victory by the Irish saw them trail 70-64 late in the first OT, but three missed UConn one-and-one attempts and a three by junior Kayla McBride — the lone trey of the game by the Irish — forced a second extra session. The Irish fell behind again, 80-75, before forcing a third OT in their 96-87 win.
• In the Big East Championship on March 12, the game was tied and Connecticut had the ball for the final shot, but the Irish forced a turnover that Diggins turned into a fast break in the closing seconds, culminating with a pass to Natalie Achonwa for a layup with 1.8 seconds left in the 61-59 triumph.
There is not much to over-analyze in a series that this Sunday will have a 12th meeting the past three years.
“We know what they’re going to do; they know what we’re going to do,” said McGraw of the all-too-familiar Big East foe. “Both of us have put a couple of new wrinkles in, but really it’s going to come down to another battle, every possession.
“We go into the games with a lot of confidence and we know it’s going to be a battle, but I don’t think there’s an edge really either way.”
Both are No. 1 seeds. Both have two selections on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association 10-person All-American team, Diggins and junior Kayla McBride for the Irish and Mosqueda-Lewis and junior center Stefanie Dolson for UConn.
UConn is No. 1 nationally in scoring offense (82.2 points per game) while Notre Dame is No. 2 (81.6). Connecticut is taller and deeper inside, led by the 6-5 Dolson and 6-4 Stewart, but Notre Dame’s backcourt with Diggins, McBride and National Freshman of the Year Jewell Loyd is the best in the country.
Loyd won the award over Stewart — who was the National Player of the Year last season in the high school ranks and has been having a breakthrough NCAA Tournament.
After committing a school-record 35 turnovers in the triple-OT loss at Notre Dame, Connecticut controlled its tempo a little better in the Big East Championship in a relatively low-scoring affair while having 17 turnovers.
The danger with seven-time national champ UConn is two-fold. On one hand, it possesses the nation’s No. 1 three-point shooter in Mosqueda-Lewis, whose .489 percentage beyond the arc is the best in the land and whose 112 treys are the third most this season.
On the other hand, the Twin Tower tandem of Dolson, who has been battling a stress fracture in her right ankle to go with an injured left foot, and Stewart will present a challenge to Notre Dame juniors Achonwa and Ariel Braker. Achonwa earned honorable mention All-America honors for her single-season school-record 19 double-doubles in points and rebounds, and she can’t afford to get into foul trouble against the Huskies.
The Irish are 3-0 all time against UConn in the Final Four, winning in 2001 en route to the national title and also each of the last two seasons. But two years ago, it was Notre Dame that was 0-3 during the season against UConn before vanquishing them in the Final Four, leading to its current 7-1 advantage in the last eight games versus the Huskies.
Something has to give on Sunday night.