Babcock McGraw: UConn out for vengeance against Notre Dame

Huskies are, of course, dogs. Cute and fast little sled dogs.

But are the Connecticut Huskies also underdogs?

Apparently, that's the word on the street.

Seems almost blasphemous, in the world of women's basketball anyway.

But technically, the UConn women's team, the heavyweight of all heavyweights in women's college basketball for nearly two decades and winner of 11 national titles from 1995 to 2016 as well as a record 111 straight games from 2014 to 2017, won't be the favorite Sunday in one of the biggest games in the nation this season.


UConn not a favorite?

Nope. Notre Dame will be.

In a matchup of the game's two biggest titans, the Irish will be the favorite, and Connecticut will be the ... well, you know.

"People are saying we're the underdog," Connecticut all-American Katie Lou Samuelson said on Wednesday after she and the Huskies took care of DePaul in Hartford at the XL Center. "But I think it's funny. It's probably one of the first times that we have had that opportunity to kind of prove ourselves and show what we can do rather than just holding onto something (such as traditions and high expectations)."

Notre Dame gets to put that bull's-eye on its back not just because the Irish are currently ranked No. 1 in the country and Connecticut is ranked No. 2.

Rather, Notre Dame seems to have UConn's number. At least for now. And the Irish seem better equipped. At least on paper.

Notre Dame ousted Connecticut from the Women's Final Four last year in the national semifinals before going on to win the national championship. And while Connecticut is missing two key players from last year to graduation, Notre Dame returns essentially its entire national championship team and even gains some additional firepower in one player (Brianna Turner) who would have been a starter last season but spent the entire time rehabbing a serious knee injury from the year before.

So add up swagger and confidence and a more veteran team, and Notre Dame is the favorite in Sunday's mega-tilt in South Bend.

Of course, don't expect Connecticut to sit by agreeably and accept the predictions.

Buckle up, women's basketball fans, this should be a wild ride, broadcast live on ESPN at 3 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, no matter who is the favorite.

"We're just going in there to win the game," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "This reminds me of our old (annual) series with Tennessee where every game was life and death. Every game was the game of the century ... and there were like 12 centuries in there.

"But in the end, you just want to play great and win. It's good for us for every once in awhile to just feel unencumbered ... by anything other than that we need to play well. We don't have winning streaks and rankings and any of that other stuff (to worry about). They just want to play the game."

Connecticut must find a way to cool off Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale, who hit a buzzer-beater game-winner in the national semifinals to take out the Huskies last year, and a buzzer-beater game-winner in the national championship game against Mississippi State.

Ogunbowale has stayed in that fast lane since last April and has been coming up with big performances game in and game out so far this season. Ogunbowale is averaging 25.3 points per game.

The Irish also get about 17 points apiece out of both Jackie Young and Jessica Shepard and double-figures from two other players. All five starters average double-figures for Notre Dame.

Connecticut gets double-figures out of all five of its starters as well. Samuelson leads the way at 20.3 points per game while fellow senior Napheesa Collier is right behind at 18.3 points per game. The Huskies also start a freshman and a sophomore.

While Notre Dame seems to have most of the tangibles on its side, Connecticut might have one big intangible.

The Huskies are hungry: hungry for some Notre Dame payback, and hungry to right the basketball world to the way most everyone knows it.

They haven't won a national championship since 2016, after all, and that is not like them.

The ever-sarcastic Auriemma likes to poke a little bit of fun at that.

"We fell on hard times," Auriemma said wryly, to a room full of chuckles when speaking about what it's been like to have not won a national title in two whole years. "But think about it, most programs go through cycles. We've been the only one to be immune to that. Over the last 25 years, every single team in America has gone through some cycle in which they haven't been good.

"Except us. So ... how do you explain that? The more you do that (win at unprecedented levels), the more it's out there that it's supposed to last forever. And it doesn't."

Then again, odds are, Connecticut's underdog status won't last forever either.

In fact, it's debatable as to whether or not it's even really a thing in the first place.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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