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NCAA women’s final four Irish deny Huskies again

April 6, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. — It’s over.

The UConn women’s basketball team’s dreams of an elusive 12th national championship were destroyed for the second straight year by rival Notre Dame in the Final Four. The No. 2 Huskies wilted down the stretch, blowing a nine-point lead to the top-seeded Fighting Irish in an 81-76 heartbreaker at Amalie Arena Friday night.

Arike Ogunbowale, whose overtime buzzer-beater knocked out UConn in the national semifinals a year earlier, poured in a game-high 23 points. Forward Jessica Shepard added 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.

Two free throws by Ogunbowale extended Notre Dame’s lead to 76-73 with 58.3 seconds left. On UConn’s next possession, Napheesa Collier had her shot blocked by Brianna Turner.

And so, after returning to the Final Four for a record 12th straight time, the Huskies will end the year with a record of 35-3. Their title drought now rests at three years.

Guard Katie Lou Samuelson had 20 points — all in the second half — and six assists. Christyn Williams scored 19 while Collier added 15 points and 13 rebounds.

UConn opened up a 64-55 lead with 7:52 remaining, but Notre Dame authored a quick response. The Fighting Irish answered with a 13-4 run, capped by a jumper by Ogunbowale to grab a 68-66 lead.

Defending national champion Notre Dame (35-3) will look to repeat Sunday against Baylor. The tournament’s top overall seed, Baylor advanced earlier in the night with a 72-67 victory over No. 2 Oregon (33-5). The Lady Bears (36-1) will be making their first appearance in the final since 2012.

The Huskies burst out of the gates in the fourth quarter, opening with a 10-3 run. A transition layup by Williams gave UConn a 62-55 lead, prompting a Notre Dame timeout. Collier followed with a bucket to extend the lead to nine.

Samuelson delivered an authoritative response to a scoreless opening half, exploding for 15 points in the third to give UConn a 54-52 lead. The senior sharpshooter went 5-of-6 from the floor during the quarter, sinking two 3-pointers.

Williams, the ultra-competitive freshman who dropped a career-high 28 points in an 89-71 victory at Notre Dame in December, ended the second quarter on an emphatic note. The guard drained a buzzer-beating jumper in the lane to send the Huskies into halftime up 30-29.

Ogunbowale, a second team All-American and the Fighting Irish’s leading scorer, had a quiet start. Ogunbowale and point guard Marina Mabrey combined to shoot a porous 2-of-15 (1-of-10 from 3) and score five points.

Meanwhile, Samuelson, who willed the Huskies past Louisville in the Albany Regional final with 29 points on the strength of seven treys, had an even worse start. Samuelson missed all five shots she took in the first half and committed a pair of turnovers.

UConn jumped out fast, scoring 11 straight points to grab a 13-4 lead. However, Notre Dame bounced back from a dismal 2-of-14 start from the floor to close the first quarter down just 16-12.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour