The much-anticipated championship game pitting two undefeated teams for the first time ever simply failed to live up to the hype. The Connecticut Huskies (40-0) were dominant on a night when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (37-1) struggled mightily on both ends of the court.
The Huskies had this one in the bag just about from the word "go", as they dominated from the inside-out en route to an easy championship victory. The interior tag-team of Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson was sensational, proving to be way too much for an Irish team without captain center Natalie Achonwa. Stewart and Dolson combined for an incredible 38 points on 18 of 28 shooting, 25 rebounds, and 11 assists. They made every single thing there is to do in basketball look effortless.
Connecticut predictably won the rebounding battle by a vast margin, which tells the story and underlies the confidence, sure-handedness, and pure hustle they displayed in ways that Notre Dame simply could not match.
In order to win this one, the Irish needed to be much more prolific shooting from outside, but save for a stretch to close the first half, they struggled from everywhere. Notre Dame finished at just 6 of 19 in their three-point shooting, a subpar 32 percent that contributed to an overall 36 percent that was far below their season average.
It is easy to look at the dominant second half and say that Notre Dame never really had a chance in this one, but they found themselves down just 7 points at halftime after a brief run led by Michaela Mabrey. It should have been a 5 point deficit but for a defensive rebound that slipped through Irish hands, giving the Huskies an easy second-change lay-up just before time expired.
But after halftime, it was all Connecticut, as the Irish went ice cold from the field and assembled a collection of some of the worst turnovers they have committed all season. They had too few options to turn to offensively and remained uncharacteristically flat-footed throughout. The lack of energy was surprising and brutally evident with defensive possession after defensive possession featuring a slow rotation leading to an easy Husky bucket.
There are only so many ways to describe how thoroughly Connecticut dominated this game. They are the undisputed champion and breezed through the season virtually untested, even by an excellent and otherwise-undefeated Irish squad.
Notre Dame was led by senior Kayla McBride who scored 21 points in this one but seemed to suffer a little from Shane Falco quicksand syndrome in the second half. The more she tried to take over the game in the second half, the more she struggled on both ends.
Jewell Loyd was largely invisible, as the Irish needed far more than her 13 points on the night. Michaela Mabrey hit double-digits with 10 points and kept Notre Dame in the game heading into halftime.
The frontcourt trio of Ariel Braker, Taya Reimer, and Markisha Wright were, at best, ineffective and a far cry from the presence they provided on Sunday against Maryland. They needed Achonwa more than ever in this one, facing their biggest frontcourt challenge of the season by far.
The Notre Dame program says goodbye to its senior class and its 4 appearances in the Final Four, a remarkable run even without a title. All-American Kayla McBride leaves as one of the best guards in program history, while Natalie Achonwa's unceremonious exit in "street" clothes will remain the ultimate "what could have been" for Irish fans.
It should not be lost on Irish fans what a tremendous season this was for Notre Dame, the preseason 6/7th-ranked team in what was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year following the loss of Skylar Diggins. But led by a fantastic trio of McBride, Loyd, and Achonwa, the Irish ripped through its new conference with relative ease, and establishing itself as the new sheriff in the ACC.
But make no mistake about it, with or without Achonwa, this final effort was a major disappointment on the big stage. The night was deservedly hyped as a historic finals matchup between undefeateds, but only one team showed why it belongs in the history books, and Connecticut, for the second straight night, celebrates as champions.