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Viewpoint Fearless Williams helps Huskies turn the tables on Irish

December 3, 2018

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Christyn Williams, in the biggest game of her life, never blinked.

Arike Ogunbowale, celebrated as the calmest, coolest shooter to shock and amaze any Final Four, unraveled. Melted down.

So let’s start there.

Much of the chatter leading into this early-season match between the top two teams in women’s college basketball revolved around UConn’s kids.

How would they handle Notre Dame’s national championship experience?

How would they handle the intense road pressure and an Irish crowd ready to boo every call against their team and ready to do the Irish jig to every “Rakes of Mallow?”

How would sophomore Megan Walker, playing her first truly pivotal role, and freshmen Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa handle a national audience tuned in to see if they would melt at the very sight of Ogunbowale and the No. 1 Irish?

The answer, in UConn’s 89-71 victory, would be simple.

They didn’t melt. Arike did. Notre Dame did.

Williams essentially predicted a national championship before playing in a college game and had to reel in that one. She said she has learned her lesson. On this Sunday in South Bend, she allowed her play to do the smack-talking. How does 28 points, including 16 in the first quarter, sound?

“Christyn Williams was phenomenal,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She really was the difference in the game.”

McGraw said her team was poor in offensive execution, poor in transition defense and poor in half-court defense.

“And then we lost our poise,” McGraw said. “And that’s was unaccepted. I was really disappointed to see the veterans we have not rise to the occasion.”

Ogunbowale’s actions jumped out. She got a technical for jawing at Auriemma with 4:25 left. As Notre Dame took off on transition offense, she got an unsportsmanlike foul for wrapping her arm around Crystal Dangerfield’s head from behind with 1:43 left.

And then she refused to shake hands with Auriemma in the line afterward. The UConn coach wore a look of, “What the heck?”

Ogunbowale will forever be known as the player who hit two last-second shots on championship weekend, as the player who came up bigger than anyone in the history of the Final Four. Sunday, she came off small.

“(Auriemma) said some words and I fed right into it and said something back,” Ogunbowale told reporters about her technical. “As a senior leader, I definitely can’t do that. I have to keep my composure at a time like that.”

Auriemma said there was no direct interchange with Ogunbowale to start the kerfuffle.

“I was just making comments about stuff that was going on out on the floor, I was talking to the officials,” Auriemma said. “She gave me one those (dismissive hands). I said, ‘What’s that?’ And then she said something and the next thing you know, technical foul.”

“This wasn’t a big (thing) from back in the day.”

Rutgers’ Cappie Pondexter got into it big-time with Auriemma in 2005. And then there was an incident where Syracuse’s Nicole Michael may have purposely tripped Auriemma in the handshake line in 2009.

This game wasn’t ugly, ugly, but it did have its weirdness. The public address announcer introduced the visitors as the University of Kentucky.

“Seemed a little petty,” Napheesa Collier said.

It probably was a mistake, but on a day fraught with emotion, it would be legendary if he did it on purpose. The good news is he didn’t introduce UConn’s coach as John Calipari.

Katie Lou Samuelson went 0-for-7 in the first half and the legendary Red Panda, gasp, dropped a bowl from her at halftime while atop her giant unicycle. It was one of those games where all hell could have broken lose, but, no, UConn’s kids kept it together.

Notre Dame couldn’t catch UConn. That’s the bottom line. Most of the game was spent between UConn leading from three to nine points. Every time the Irish tried to close a lead UConn would answer back. And so much of it was Williams.

“I was ready,” she said. “I’ve dreamed of playing in a game like this. There weren’t really butterflies. I tried to treat it like a regular game. I try not to think of it as a big deal. It really helped.”

The game plan, Auriemma said, was on rebounds and misses to look up the floor and throw it to Williams. And if she had a chance, he wanted her to attack the basket every time.

“And she did,” Auriemma said, “Because she can. She’s one of those kids in practice every day she’ll get to the basket against anybody anytime. So when you’re telling a kid, “Listen, tomorrow in the biggest game you’ve ever played in your life, I want you to do what you’re really good at.’ That’s pretty easy for a kid to understand.”

It’s not like he was asking her to guard Ogunbowale or Jackie Young.

Auriemma smiled when was asked about the difference between Sunday and the Final Four loss.

“We threw the ball to Christyn Williams,” Auriemma said. “I would have thrown it to her last year, but she wasn’t around. She was in high school. It would have been a recruiting violation. You have to match (Notre Dame’s) aggressiveness. You have to attack their defense the way they attack yours. Christyn does that. She’s fearless.”

Auriemma said he got on his team at halftime for not continuing to pass to the freshman from Arkansas. There is a fascinating line with Williams. How to fit into team? How to fit into the game? What to say? How to say it? Remember she was the national high school player of the year, one who saw Ogunbowale break UConn’s heart.

“I was at home,” Williams said. “Of course, I was watching. She hit the shot. I was just devastated. I wished I could be out there to help. Today I got my chance. I wanted to win this game for Pheesa, Lou and Crystal.”

Williams has a tattoo on her forearm. It reads, “Always give God the glory.” That’s her life motto. She’s also remembered for tattooing this on people’s memories last summer: “We’re going to get that championship. People are going to feel UConn.”

She would text an apology to Auriemma.

“I’ve learned to keep it simple,” Williams said. “I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.”

“She felt bad about saying it, but she really believed it,” Auriemma said. “Somebody asked her another question, she said, ‘I was born for this.’ Some people just know who they are. She knows who she is. She knows that’s what she is.”

jeff.jacobs

@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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