NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Notre Dame and coach Muffet McGraw have had more success against Connecticut than any other women’s basketball program since 2000-01.
Just not when it matters most, at least not the past two seasons.
The Irish, the nation’s best shooting team, struggled to put the ball in the basketball Tuesday night. With their shooting woes, they couldn’t keep up with Connecticut in the first NCAA championship matchup of undefeated teams and lost to the rival Huskies 79-58.
It was the lowest scoring game this season for Notre Dame (37-1), which had its season ended by UConn for a second straight year after losing to the Huskies in the national semifinal a year ago. Both losses sting for an Irish program that had won seven of the previous nine against UConn coming into the showdown.
Senior forward Natalie Achonwa could only watch from the bench with her left leg in a brace to protect her torn ACL that turned the Irish’ top rebounder into a spectator.
“We can’t hang our heads on one game,” Achonwa said as she tried to choke back the tears sitting in the locker room with her leg propped up. “We went 37-1. That’s a great record.”
Senior Kayla McBride scored 21 points in her final college game, and sophomore Jewell Loyd added 13. Michaela Mabrey had all of her 10 points off the bench in the first half.
Being on this stage is something very familiar for Notre Dame. The Irish are just the fifth team to reach the title game three times in four years. It was their sixth appearance overall.
“It’s hard right now to remember what a great season this was, but I think that’s what we need to reflect back and think about, getting here,” McGraw said. “Tonight’s game was incredibly disappointing for all of us, in particular the seniors. I know how much they wanted it, and I wanted it for them.”
But the Irish still have only one championship, which came back in 2001. And this one wasn’t pretty.
They didn’t run their offense effectively as they usually do, and the bigger Huskies dominated inside with a 54-31 rebounding edge.
Not being able to keep the Huskies off the boards cost the Irish last year in the national semifinal loss against UConn.
“We needed to box out and rebound,” Loyd said. “Those are the things we didn’t do tonight. It is strange because we did so well against Maryland in both boxing out and rebounding. But tonight we didn’t have it.”
The Irish led only once at 8-6.
Then a team that shot 51 percent during the season and was the second-best scoring squad in the country — averaging 86.8 points a game — just went cold.
Though the bigger Huskies may it tough on Notre Dame, McBride said the Irish were mostly to blame for their struggles.
“We weren’t in the rhythm in the offense,” McBride said. “We weren’t making the extra pass, we weren’t playing the normal way we’ve been playing the past 37 games. I think that’s what made it look so bad.”
McGraw gave some of the credit to UConn’s defense, especially Associated Press Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, for being such a good shot blocker. Stewart blocked three shots. When UConn made a 16-0 run to take the lead for good, the Irish didn’t respond well.
“We were pressing,” McGraw said. “We were just trying so hard, and we went one-on-one ... our game has been team and assists and working the ball together. And I thought we tried to go a little bit too much off the dribble.”
McBride hit 6 of 9 from the floor in the first half. But Loyd, the Irish’ leading scorer averaging 18.7 points a game, was 3 of 9 in the first half. Loyd did hit the fifth 3-pointer of the half pulling Notre Dame within 43-38 with 27.8 seconds left in the first half.
They never got closer than that as Connecticut (40-0) won its record ninth national championship and finished off its fifth undefeated season.
After Loyd’s second and final 3-pointer, UConn coach Geno Auriemma took a timeout and tell his Huskies not to let them hit anymore 3s. The Irish managed to hit only 1 of 11 in the second half outside the arc, and that came from McBride when it was just too late to do any good with 2:47 left and Huskies’ fans already starting to celebrate.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker