TAMPA, Fla. — They did it again.
For the second straight year, Notre Dame clinched a trip to the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game by beating rival Connecticut in the national semifinals.
This time, the defending champions didn’t need a last-second shot. Instead, the Irish beat back an inspired performance by the Huskies’ Katie Lou Samuelson to clinch an 81-76 win.
The Irish will face Baylor, which beat Oregon earlier Friday at Amalie Arena, in Sunday’s championship game. Notre Dame will try to become the fourth school to win consecutive titles, joining Connecticut, Tennessee and Southern California.
The Huskies led by as many as nine points early in the fourth quarter, but Arike Ogunbowale — who hit the winning jumper with one second left in overtime to oust UConn last season — scored 12 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter Friday night.
Jessica Shepard had 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists for Notre Dame. Brianna Turner, who sat out last season’s run with a torn ACL, had 15 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots. Marina Mabrey had 12 points and 12 assists.
“They were better than us tonight,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They were better than we were when the season started and they were better than us tonight.”
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was so thrilled with the victory that she did a dance at midcourt after the buzzer. “That was an amazing second half,” she said. “Arike made some great plays. That’s what she does.”
Notre Dame has what many consider to be the most talented starting five in the game, with all four seniors labeled as WNBA prospects and junior Jackie Young a possible prospect if she declares for the draft.
Connecticut doesn’t have the kind of big-time superstar who has been the hallmark of so many great Huskies teams in the past. No Breanna Stewart. No Maya Moore. No Diana Taurasi.
They did have seniors Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. Samuelson had an inspired second half, scoring all 20 of her points. Christyn Williams had 19 and Collier added 15 points and 13 rebounds.
This was the 50th meeting between McGraw and Auriemma. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that familiarity has bred contempt between the two coaches, it would be accurate to say they are far from close.
When Auriemma was beginning to build UConn’s program, Pat Summitt’s Tennessee team was his big rival. Now it is Notre Dame. One always got the feeling that even when they were feuding, there was an underlying affection between Auriemma and Summitt. But there seems to be a simmering tension between Auriemma and McGraw.
This was on display Thursday when McGraw was asked an awkward question about their relationship. In an earlier interview, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey declared that coaches at this level are all close friends and that some might even be married if they weren’t competitors. A reporter then asked McGraw how she thought that statement applied to her and Auriemma.
“I could see us being friends, but I could not see us being married,” McGraw said. “So the answer is no, if he’s proposing.”
Auriemma, for his part, seemed a little annoyed that McGraw chose to use her news conference on Thursday — the day before playing his team — to talk about how young women need women as coaches and role models. Said Auriemma: “There’s a lot of people out there advancing the game, advancing women.”