TAMPA ― The best current rivalry in women’s college basketball delivered.
In the end, so, too, did the rivalry’s two biggest stars.
Down by nine early in the fourth quarter, reigning national champ Notre Dame rallied for an 81-76 victory against Uconn (35-3) in the national semifinal nightcap before an Amalie Arena crowd of 20,062.
“An amazing second half,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.
Notre Dame senior Arike Ogunbowale, whose buzzer-beater in last year’s semifinals ended UConn’s season, scored 14 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter. Her effort upstaged that of UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson, who scored all 20 of her points after halftime.
“I don’t think it was any mystery who was gonna be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Notre Dame (35-3) now owns 999 victories all-time. It seeks its milestone triumph in Sunday’s championship against Baylor.
If the title game is anything like Friday’s proceedings, expect the nip and tuck to be as prevalent as the pick-and-roll.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Irish and Huskies had changed leads 26 times.
The Huskies took early command, with four different players scoring during an early 11-0 run ― featuring treys and transition layups ― for a 13-4 lead. The Irish responded with a 12-0 surge of their own, all via interior baskets.
And so it went. By halftime, the lead had changed nine times as Samuelson and Ogunbowale combined for two first-half points.
With Ogunbowale struggling initially, Notre Dame compensated inside, scoring its first 20 points in the paint and essentially running its offense through 6-foot-4 senior Jessica Shepard.
A second-team All-American, Shepard finished with her 18th double double of the season (20 points, 13 rebounds).
Meantime, UConn got 11 first-half points from senior Napheesa Collier and eight from freshman Christyn Williams, including a jumper at the top of the key at the halftime horn to give the Huskies a 30-29 lead.
At that point, the teams had combined to go 3-for-25 from 3-point range in the first half, with Samuelson and point guard Crystal Dangerfield ― UConn’s two biggest long-range threats ― going a combined 0-for-8.
“You can’t defend them any better than we did in the first half,” Auriemma said.
Samuelson scored the second half’s opening basket, a layup on a nifty spin move in the paint. Her first 3-pointer, at the shot-clock buzzer with 1:37 to play in the third, gave the Huskies a 48-47 lead.
By the end of the quarter, she had 15 points, including UConn’s last nine of the period. It ended with UConn leading, 54-52.
The lead increased to 64-55 following a 7-0 Huskies run. Notre Dame cut it to 66-63 on Ogunbowale’s second 3-pointer of the fourth quarter, and Marina Mabrey followed with a trey of her own to tie the score with 4:25 to go.
Obunbowale’s short baseline jumper gave the Irish the advantage.
“She probably feels like she has to carry us because she’s our leading scorer,” McGraw said. “She tries to do a little bit too much early, then sometimes not enough. I thought she really settled in at halftime.”
UConn managed only one field goal in the final 1:42, but was down by only three when 6-3 Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner (15 points, 15 rebounds) blocked a Collier layup with 49 seconds to play.
“I thought Brianna Turner was absolutely outstanding on defense,” McGraw said.
Ogunbowale answered with two free throws on the other end. Notre Dame was 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final minute.
“Most teams are gonna give you a chance to win the game and they gave us a chance to win the game," Auriemma said. "And we weren’t good enough to win it.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.