The disappointment inside UConn’s locker room is palpable.
It’s 11:45 p.m. Friday night, and the Huskies are scattered about the room in various states of grief — some with their heads hung low, others fighting back emotions as they answer questions about what went wrong in a game that felt winnable up until the final moments.
For those like Crystal Dangerfield, who have been through this two times before, the pain is all too familiar. This national semifinal loss — UConn’s third in three years — stings a little more, though. It wasn’t just that there was no shot at the buzzer, no last-second luck to rob the Huskies of overtime. It was a battle up until the very end, and it was a battle they lost to Notre Dame, 81-76. And in losing, UConn was unable to send their seniors off with a second national title.
“We had two seniors that we felt like should’ve gone out with a championship,” Dangerfield said. “We had an entire team that invested a lot into this season. We went through the trenches, really, and we started playing some great basketball to get ourselves to the Final Four. This time it felt different, but we fell short again.”
Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson didn’t get the ending they were hoping for — a trophy to go beside the one the Huskies won their freshman year — but they went out fighting. The seniors were critical to UConn’s 35-3 season, including Friday night’s game against the Fighting Irish.
Samuelson went from a scoreless first half to 15 points in the third quarter alone, finishing with a team-high 20 points and dishing out six assists. Collier ended her college career by recording her 25th double-double of the season with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Also contributing were key members of UConn’s future, with freshman Christyn Williams scoring 19 points and sophomore Megan Walker scoring 14 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Dangerfield had four points and nine assists, while freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa scored four points and grabbed five rebounds.
It was a close game from start to finish, with 26 lead changes and both teams facing shooting struggles in the first half. The Huskies went on an 11-0 run in the first quarter that should have allowed them to pull away, but they couldn’t seem to finish around the rim, which gave Notre Dame plenty of time to bounce back from its scoring drought.
After that, it was a back-and-forth game that UConn could never truly take control of, even when they led by nine points in the fourth quarter. Their shots weren’t falling, they gave up costly turnovers and they fell prey to Arike Ogunbowale’s fourth quarter prowess.
“We just weren’t good enough tonight to do it,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “I mean, it’s not anything other than they were just better than us tonight. They were better than us when the season started and they were better than us tonight. They had more good players play better and contribute more than we did. That’s just the way the world is. They deserved to win, and we didn’t do quite enough to win. That’s it.”
Auriemma has repeated the most important part of the NCAA Tournament time and time again in March and April: great players need to make big plays, and whoever makes the most big plays will likely win. On Friday night, the Huskies weren’t able to make enough of those big plays.
Samuelson gave UConn huge uplifting moments in the third quarter, redeeming herself from an 0-for-5 start in the first half, but she could only do so much in the final minutes of the game. Williams tried to recreate her 28-point performance against the Fighting Irish from the regular season, but they were much more prepared for her.
The Huskies knew what Ogunbowale, who finished with 23 points, would be capable of in the final quarter — that Notre Dame would try to get her as many touches as possible, and that they needed to respond. Things played out exactly as they expected, but they failed to get stops and couldn’t match Notre Dame shot for shot.
“We needed to step up, make big plays, get stops,” Samuelson said. “They just made more big plays than we did.”
From Ogunbowale’s shooting to Brianna Turner’s blocks, the Fighting Irish made the big plays when they needed them most. Their reward is a chance at winning their second-straight national title, which they’ll play Baylor for on Sunday.
UConn will likely be back in Connecticut by then trying to work through the emotions of Friday’s loss, coming to terms with the things they wish they would’ve done differently, and lamenting the much bigger, impending loss — that of Samuelson and Collier.
“The thing that stings the most in your locker room, if you’ve ever played, is you look around and there’s some people in the locker room that aren’t going to be back next year,” Auriemma said. “That hurts way more than the loss. That hurts way more than the loss. When you realize that two people that you’ve shared so much with are not going to be around any more.”