women’s basketball UConn braces for No. 1 Notre Dame

December 1, 2018

STORRS — Geno Auriemma would love to push back UConn’s rematch with Notre Dame to January or maybe even February. That way, he could have a few more weeks to assess the makeup of his team before pitting them against the defending national champions on the road.

The reality, though, is that the Huskies and Fighting Irish will meet on Sunday (4 p.m.), renewing the best rivalry in women’s college basketball.

Along with it, Auriemma hopes, will come valuable lessons that the Huskies can put to good use if not now, then in the coming months.

“I’ve always thought, the earlier you find out about your team and about your players, the better off you’re going to be,” Auriemma said Friday following practice at the Werth Center.

In many ways, there is no perfect time to play the No. 1 team in the country. The Fighting Irish (7-0) are just as talented — if not more talented — than the team that knocked off UConn 91-89 in overtime in last year’s Final Four. Four starters who averaged at least 14 points are back — and that doesn’t include forward Brianna Turner, an All-American who sat out all last season recovering from a torn ACL.

Meanwhile, the Huskies, despite being ranked No. 2, aren’t as deep or experienced as they’ve been in the past. Two of their starters — sophomore forward Megan Walker and freshman guard Christyn Williams — did not log a single minute the last time these bluebloods met.

“We’re going out there to win the game,” Auriemma said. “You want Christyn and Megan to do whatever they have to do to help us win the game, whatever that is. I want them to play great. I want them to feel what it feels like to be in that kind of game, in that environment against really good players. I want them to be in situations where they’re guarding somebody they can’t guard and that every defensive possession means a lot and every offensive possession means a lot.”

So far, except for a scare from St. John’s that resulted in a 65-55 win in the U.S. Virgin Islands, this season’s been a relative cakewalk for the Huskies. They’ve won six games by an average of 33.6 points.

Sunday, though, will present new challenges — the kind of challenges that Williams, the former No. 1 high school player in the country, expected when she signed with UConn.

“I’m really excited,” Williams said. “This is why I came here, to play in big games like this.”

UConn and Notre Dame have met 48 times since 1996, including seven times in the Final Four. The Huskies beat the Fighting Irish 80-71 in Hartford last December, a result that ultimately made little difference when the teams met nearly four months later at the Final Four.

“You just want to play great and you want to win,” Auriemma said. “If we play great and win, we’re going to feel great. If we play lousy and win, we’re going to feel great. If we play great and lose, we’re going to feel (crummy). … Either way, I know we’re flying out right after the game.”

Like Williams, junior guard Crystal Dangerfield was once a highly touted freshman still trying to find her footing in college. Dangerfield remembers going into Notre Dame her first year — a game UConn won 72-61 — and finding the experience to be somewhat eye-opening.

“That was crazy, their crowd was intense. … It’s not what you’d expect. I remember walking in and thinking this looks different than I’m used to seeing on TV,” Dangerfield recalled.

On Sunday, Williams, Walker and the rest of the Huskies will learn more about themselves.

“There can be no downside to this game after the game’s over,” Auriemma said. “Both coaches are going to feel like, ‘I thought that was going to happen.’ Or they’re going to feel like, ‘I didn’t know we had that in us.’ ”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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