No. 1 UConn rallies in fourth to beat No. 3 Notre Dame 80-71

UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson pokes the ball away from Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld (33) in the second half of Sunday's game at the XL Center in Hartford. UConn rallied for an 80-71 win. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson pokes the ball away from Notre Dame's Kathryn Westbeld (33) in the second half of Sunday's game at the XL Center in Hartford. UConn rallied for an 80-71 win. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Hartford — Katie Lou Samuelson left the court in the fourth quarter to have the training staff tend to her left ankle.

She had no idea what was transpiring on the court at the XL Center during that time, but she could tell it was something that favored the top-ranked UConn women's basketball team by the continuous roar from the sold-out crowd of 15,564.

“I knew something was happening,” Samuelson said. “It was good. I kind of knew that.”

UConn was the last team standing Sunday afternoon, winning 80-71 against No. 3 Notre Dame, which showed a great deal of early-season polish in the Jimmy V Classic matchup against the Huskies.

UConn trailed by 11, however, 65-54 after a 3-point field goal by Notre Dame's Lili Thompson to start the fourth quarter, leaving UConn coach Geno Auriemma to wonder which of the teams he coaches — the one that's capable of trailing or the one that's capable of doing something about it — was going to show up for the final nine and a half minutes.

The Huskies were also playing the second half without All-American Gabby Williams (migraine) and the fourth quarter without Samuelson.

Kia Nurse started the comeback with a 3-pointer for UConn with 7:30 to play and Azura Stevens followed with an alley-oop from Crystal Dangerfield.

Stevens hit two free throws and Dangerfield put back an offensive rebound to pull the Huskies within 68-67 with 5:13 to play and the crowd started shrieking with glee, what Auriemma thought of as a throwback to the old days at the XL Center.

The Huskies took the lead on an inside move by Stevens, then traded baskets with Notre Dame before taking the lead for good with 3:51 remaining on a drive by Nurse.

UConn (7-0) outscored Notre Dame 26-9 in the fourth quarter, shoring up its defense and forcing the Fighting Irish to miss 12 of 15 shots over the final minutes.

“I knew there wasn't anybody on the bench that was going to save us,” Auriemma said of his thoughts with UConn trailing late. “I thought once we got it down to eight, we told them, 'In two possessions it could be a two-point game.'

“I thought when we took the lead, there was a change in the temperature of the game. We looked different and so did they when we took the lead. … We talked about that going into the game; we wanted the crowd to be a factor in the game. Once we did give them the opportunity, they took over. The crowd and us, that's two things you have to handle. There was one time I don't think (Notre Dame) could hear.”

Samuelson, making her return after missing four games with a foot injury, led UConn with 18 points. Stevens, who started the second half in favor of Williams, had 17 points and eight rebounds, Napheesa Collier 15 points and nine rebounds, Nurse 13 points and Dangerfield 12 points with five assists.

It was the first sellout for the women at the XL Center since Feb. 8, 2013, against Baylor.

“We just had a stretch of ugly and unfortunately for us it was the last five minutes,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who joined Auriemma in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when she was inducted earlier this fall. “… We missed a couple layups. We had a couple of inside looks, just easy baskets, and it rolled out.”

Notre Dame came into the game with only eight healthy scholarship players following a season-ending knee injury to freshman forward Mikayla Vaughn less than a week ago.

The Irish had plenty of firepower early, though — they led by as many as 12 with 1:15 to play in the first half — ending the second quarter with a 22-8 run sparked by junior guard Arike Ogunbowale, who suddenly couldn't miss.

“Not in a game like this. I don't think anyone felt tired in a game like this. The adrenaline doesn't let you,” McGraw said.

Marina Mabrey had 21 points for the Irish and Ogunbowale 19. Notre Dame had 17 offensive rebounds, 11 in the first half.

“That's why this game was really kind of exciting for us,” Stevens said of UConn. “We really had to fight back and bear down. I'm really proud. It speaks to this program (to win without Williams and Samuelson on the floor) and, honestly, it's not about who's All-Americans, it's about who's ready to play.”

“I'm coaching a team that's capable of getting down a lot. We are that team. We're missing a lot of things and we refuse to acknowledge it sometimes and it catches up to you,” Auriemma said. “Then there's the other team I coach, the team that played in the fourth quarter and when it was time to win the game, they made the plays to win the game.”

UConn next plays at DePaul on Friday before meeting No. 22 Oklahoma in the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase on Dec. 19 at Mohegan Sun Arena.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

UConn's Azura Stevens pulls down a rebound over Notre Dame's Jackie Young, back, and Kathryn Westbeld (33) in the second half of Sunday's game at the XL Center in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn's Azura Stevens pulls down a rebound over Notre Dame's Jackie Young, back, and Kathryn Westbeld (33) in the second half of Sunday's game at the XL Center in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn's Kia Nurse fouls Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale fighting for the ball during Sunday's game at the XL Center in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn's Kia Nurse fouls Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale fighting for the ball during Sunday's game at the XL Center in Hartford. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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