NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Cheering sections seem a little tilted in Connecticut's favor at the NCAA women's basketball championship game, but the many Tennessee fans on hand are probably on Notre Dame's side.
It was an uneven half for both teams, and one in which the Irish badly missed Natalie Achonwa, who wore a knee brace on the bench. But Connecticut definitely established an edge, and the game appears to be theirs to lose.
PLAYER OF THE HALF: Michaela Mabrey gave a huge boost off the bench. Without her, it's difficult to imagine how big the hole might be. Notre Dame was desperate for a third scorer with Achonwa hurt, and Mabrey has 10 points. Her energy was a difference at both ends, and once she was able to rebound and smartly pushed the ball up the floor, leading to an open 3-point make from Kayla McBride.
KEY STAT: McBride has 13 points and Jewell Loyd has 11, but the Irish are shooting 43 percent. When UConn is making 57 percent, that's not going to get the job done.
PLAYS OF THE HALF: With 1:07 to go, and 2 seconds left on the shot clock, McBride found Loyd on an inbounds pass. Loyd, a 40 percent 3-point shooter, drained a fallaway trey from the right wing. Mabrey found Loyd for another 3 on the next possession, drawing the Irish to 43-38. UConn got a putback in the final seconds to provide the halftime margin.
KEY SEQUENCE: After the Irish had scored six straight to take an 8-6 lead, UConn took the game by the throat, scoring 16 unanswered to lead 22-8 midway through the half. It was a devastating run, quieting the Notre Dame fans and creating bewildered faces on the bench. The Huskies scored on eight of nine possessions in the sequence, while the Irish came up empty on eight straight trips.
WHAT WORKED: The defense on Huskies All-American Bria Hartley is on point. She has two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: The interior defense was beaten time and again in the half, with UConn finding too many easy looks at the basket. Of the Huskies' first 20 points, 16 were in the paint, and two that weren't came off a post play for small forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. She banked it in off the glass on a turnaround in the tradition of Tim Duncan.
Notre Dame has tried to front UConn's bigs, but the strategy wasn't working. The first time coach Muffet McGraw made an adjustment, sending a double team on the catch, Mabrey swarmed Stewart, who panicked and threw a pass right to an Irish defender. It will be interesting to see whether McGraw scrambles her defense in the second half.