HARTFORD, Conn. - The stage has been set for Connecticut to play Notre Dame in the Big East championship, giving the Huskies the chance to exit the conference as champions in what might be their final shot for redemption against the Fighting Irish.
UConn, the tournament's No. 2 seed, punched its ticket for the title game after a 64-51 victory over No. 3 seed Syracuse in the conference semifinals. Although it was a double-digit victory, the Huskies were less than pleased with their second half performance.
"We got ourselves in a pretty good situation, playing pretty well defensively and offensively we were a little inside-outside, we got a great combination of stuff," coach Geno Auriemma said of UConn's first-half performance. "So I thought I'd go in at halftime and try to ruin it and I did."
Despite only scoring 25 points in the second half, UConn was able to pull out the victory behind a game-high 14 points from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Stefanie Dolson had 13 points and nine rebounds and Bria Hartley added 11 points and seven assists.
"Syracuse just seemed to speed us up," Mosqueda-Lewis said about the second half. "We kind of got out of our own rhythm and started throwing the ball all over the place, didn't really have a lot of composure."
The top-seeded Irish advanced to the championship after defeating No. 4 Louisville 83-59. Kayla McBride lead the way for the Irish with a team-high 17 points. Skylar Diggins had 14 points and six assists and Natalie Achonwa had 11 points and nine rebounds.
The championship will mark the third time that UConn and Notre Dame have played against each other this season. The Fighting Irish have won the previous two contests.
Their first matchup came on Jan. 5, which ended in a heartbreaking 73-72 loss for the Huskies at home. Most recently, the Fighting Irish beat the Huskies 96-87 in triple overtime on March 4. The win gave Notre Dame the regular season Big East title.
"I'm not playing; I'm going to coach the same way I coached the last two times we played them," Auriemma said. "So what I think and how I feel, that doesn't matter. What I think most important is... how we play tomorrow and how we play the whole game. How we defend, how we run our stuff, how we put ourselves in a position to win the game. We've done that, we just haven't been able to do it and if we can put ourselves in a position to win the game again tomorrow, I'm confident that we'll win the game."
Last season, UConn and Notre Dame also met in the Big East championship with Huskies coming out on top 63-54 behind a 19-point performance for Mosqueda-Lewis. The two teams met again in the Final Four with Notre Dame eliminating the Huskies in an 83-75 overtime victory. In their last 10 games against Notre Dame, UConn is 4-6.
"Obviously we're all after the whole era of Tennessee-UConn and obviously it's definitely hard because everyone's talking about it and there's so much hype around it," Dolson said when asked about the championship game against Notre Dame. "But I think we all do a really good job of kind of keeping each other grounded as players and just as a team and focusing more on ourselves as a group of Connecticut rather than Connecticut versus Notre Dame all the time. So we're always there to kind of support each other and make sure that no one's head is focused that."
Notre Dame will be playing in the Big East championship game for the seventh time in school history, but they have yet to win one. UConn has defeated them the previous six times. As the Huskies close out their time in the Big East, they will be looking to extend their streak of 19 straight seasons with either a regular season or tournament championship.