By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — It would have been one of the most memorable wins in University of Connecticut women’s basketball history.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis remembers it like it was yesterday — for the wrong reasons.
Eight unanswered points had given the Huskies a two-point lead against Notre Dame with 11.8 seconds to go in their NCAA Final Four semifinal game at the Pepsi Center in Denver on April 1. The Irish’s Skylar Diggins drove the length of the floor and missed a floater in the lane. But teammate Natalie Novosel got to the rebound and tied it with 4.6 seconds left. Notre Dame would go on to an 83-75 overtime win to end UConn’s season for the second straight year.
“I take it personally,” Mosqueda-Lewis said Friday. “That last rebound was what put us into overtime and ultimately didn’t let us win that game. That was my fault. I didn’t really box Natalie out and she went right around me.”
There will be no getting even with Notre Dame for that loss last year. But perhaps the lessons learned from it can help No. 1 UConn Saturday when it opens its Big East schedule against the fifth-ranked Irish at sold-out Gampel Pavilion.
“You go into games against really good teams and a lot of times it is little things that end up making the difference.” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “There comes a point where you have to say, ‘We’re going to take care of as many little things as we can.’ That doesn’t mean everything will work in your favor. But that’s why these games are great to play.”
UConn (12-0) holds a commanding 29-8 lead on Notre Dame (11-1) since the series between the schools began in 1996. But the Irish have won four of the last five. In all four of the losses, UConn led in the second half and in two of them, both last season, the Huskies had the edge with under 30 seconds to go but lost in overtime.
The second time it got away it cost UConn its season.
“They were really good when they needed to be and we sucked when we needed to be good,” Auriemma said. “Put that together and you have one team winning four of five.
“They’re as good as any team we’re going to play. If you make mistakes and play poorly and don’t make plays when you need to make them, they’re going to beat you.”
If the Huskies have shown anything in their 12 wins, including five against ranked opponents, this season is that they have cleaned up many of the things that caused them to struggle or in some cases cost them games last year.
“A lot of the reason that ‘little things’ haven’t come up so far is that our older guys have held more people accountable for the things they’re doing,” Mosqueda-Lewis said.
UConn and Notre Dame were 1-2 in the Big East preseason coaches poll and it’s the Irish who are the defending regular season champions. Last year’s title was their first outright crown. They shared the regular season title with UConn in 2001.
Notre Dame lost three starters, including WNBA first-round draft picks Devereaux Peters and UConn-killer Novosel, to graduation but hasn’t missed a beat. Its only loss was to defending national champion Baylor in South Bend a month ago.
Diggins is a two-time All-American and the reigning Big East Player of the Year. Kayla McBride is a solid scorer and Natalie Achonwa gained valuable experience playing for Canada’s 2012 Olympic team. Ariel Braker is having a breakout season and the Irish’s three freshmen — Jewell Loyd, Madison Cable, and Michaela Mabrey — have played beyond their years.
“We’ve exceeded my expectations as far as where I thought we’d be at this point in the season,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “The veterans have all raised their level of play this season and have been very steady for us. At the same time, our freshmen, particularly Jewell and Madison, have adjusted quickly to the college game and have really complemented the upperclassmen.”
UConn averaged 21 turnovers in the four games against Notre Dame a year ago and even made 18 in the one game it won against the Irish in the Big East tournament final.
The Huskies must also keep the Irish off the foul line. Notre Dame leads the Big East in free throws made (230) and percentage (81.3) while ranking second to Georgetown in attempts with 283. It takes an average of 10 free throws more per game than its opponents.
“They get to the free-throw line a lot, a lot more than most teams and it’s uncanny,” Auriemma said. “They must have a secret formula and I’d like to find out what it is. And the other amazing thing is they don’t foul. So you have two things that you have to deal with when you play them. They get fouled a lot, they never foul, and when they do they let you know about it.”
UConn and Notre Dame have met four times in each of the last two seasons. The teams will have a rematch at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend March 5.
“We want to beat every team,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “But they did beat us in the Final Four the last two years so there’s a little more than some other teams.”
But for the Huskies this isn’t about 2011 or 2012.
It’s a chance to make a statement for 2013.
“This is going to be nine games against them for me and you kind of get sick of seeing the same team all the time,” UConn junior All-American Bria Hartley said. “I like playing Notre Dame. I like playing big games like that. But you do want to see different teams.
“But what’s important for us is to go out and show everyone in the conference we’re a tough team that will be hard to play against.”