No. 1 UConn women host No. 3 Notre Dame in Hartford
There is a temptation to turn the focus of Sunday's clash between two women's basketball titans in the direction of the players who aren't playing or are still working their way back into shape.
However, when No. 3 Notre Dame plays top-ranked UConn at the XL Center (4 p.m., ESPN) in the Jimmy V Classic, there won't exactly be a lack of dynamic playmakers on the court — even as the Huskies look to get leading scorer Katie Lou Samuelson back into the flow and the Fighting Irish move forward with only eight healthy scholarship players.
Tickets have been selling at a fast and furious pace, so it's quite likely that the Huskies will be greeted by its first home sellout crowd of the season.
"Notre Dame is always a fun game and to have the crowd be ready, it's going to be great," UConn junior forward Napheesa Collier said.
Seeing how Notre Dame's dynamic perimeter trio of Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young and Marina Mabrey square off against UConn's Kia Nurse, Crystal Dangerfield and Gabby Williams will be worth the price of admission.
However, perhaps the most anticipated matchup could be the showdown in the low post between Collier and Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard. Shepard, who transferred in from Nebraska and was granted immediate eligibility, is averaging 13 points and a team-high 8.9 rebounds per game.
"She's definitely an inside presence," Collier said of Shepard. "She is a true post and can also play outside, but she is strong and they can get the ball to her inside."
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Shepard is the first undergraduate transfer she's had during her highly successful run with the Fighting Irish.
"We are so excited to have her," McGraw said. "She brings some experience, she is a great player, really talented. She can do a lot of things, she is very versatile, she can score in a lot of different ways, can face up, is a great passer, can rebound and is really strong around the basket."
Williams, the reigning national defensive player of the year, has drawn some of the defensive assignments on the most physical post players in the last couple of seasons. It will be interesting to see how the UConn coaching staff chooses to proceed in the early going, especially if 6-foot-6 Azurá Stevens returns to her role of valuable reserve assuming that Samuelson is cleared to play.
Samuelson missed the last 4 1/2 games with a foot injury, but all signs point toward the sweet-shooting 6-3 junior returning to the lineup. In her absence, Nurse ranks fourth nationally by making 58.3 percent of her 3-pointers, while Dangerfield checks in at 48.6 percent. Collier has five 3-pointers in the first six games, while Stevens, Megan Walker and Andra Espinoza-Hunter have combined for 10 3-pointers. Samuelson's return will allow the Huskies to spread the court even more effectively.
"Lou on the floor changes everything that we do because she kind of bridges that gap between our perimeter guys and our inside guys," Auriemma said. "Right now we don't really have anybody else who does that so when we put her out on the court, you can see the difference."
Sophomore forward Batouly Camara has returned to practice, but Auriemma thinks she still has work to do before he is ready to insert her into a game.
With all due respect to Samuelson and Camara, what UConn is dealing with health wise pales in comparison to what Notre Dame has endured.
Before the season started it was already known that Brianna Turner, who would have been a national player of the year candidate, was going to sit out as she recovers from the knee injury she suffered in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Senior guard Mychal Johnson is also out for the season after tearing her ACL in a preseason practice.
Lightning struck the Fighting Irish again on Tuesday when freshman forward Mikayla Vaughn tore her ACL in practice. Without Turner and Vaughn, and with underrated senior forward Kathryn Westbeld less than 100 percent due to a persistent issue with her ankle, the Fighting Irish don't have much depth in the post. Especially when former prized recruit Erin Boley transferred to Oregon after her freshman season.
"Basketball is a funny thing," Auriemma said. "I go back to (2001) when Shea (Ralph) got hurt in the (Big East) championship game at Gampel and we played them in the Final Four without Shea and Svetlana (Abrosimova). It has probably been one thing or another for either team since then. It is unfortunate, when you think about kids in college and their injuries and for whatever ready things go in cycles.
"I feel terrible for kids. Mikayla on their team is probably heartbroken as anybody would be, it is just unfortunate. It is not easy, you try to do the best you can to help kids. No matter how many times you have to go through it, it is never easy."
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