TAMPA, Fla. — When Notre Dame played UConn in December, the Irish were missing a piece. The last piece of the complicated puzzle needed to beat UConn was not on the floor.
Two things went well for the Irish back on Dec. 6. They received a career-high 31 points from All-American Jewell Loyd, and they had a 10-point lead over the Huskies early in the first half. But when they were down by 10, the Huskies ramped it up and took it to a limited Notre Dame team.
UConn turned to redshirt sophomore Morgan Tuck to lead them back, and the Irish could not stop her. Tuck scored a career-high 25 points to lead UConn past Notre Dame 76-58.
The missing piece to the puzzle was freshman Brianna Turner.
Turner, the No. 2 player on ESPN’s 2014 HoopGurlz recruiting rankings, missed the first meeting against the Huskies earlier in the season due to a right-shoulder injury.
“It definitely was frustrating not being out there with my team, but I get the opportunity tomorrow night, thankfully,” Turner said.
Turner is fully healthy now, and she’s playing at an exceptionally high level. As of March 31, she led the nation in field goal percentage (67 percent) and she has vamped up her play in the NCAA tournament. In five games played in the tournament, she has averaged 13.4 points per game to go along with eight rebounds.
“She’s our leading rebounder and one of our top three scorers so I think she makes a difference in our team at the defensive end with her rebounding, her presence of shot blocking and the way she can run the floor,” McGraw said. “I think that she adds a lot to our team.”
In the first meeting, UConn out-rebounded Notre Dame 52-34 and held the Irish to their lowest shooting percentage all season (31 percent). The Huskies also scored 44 points in the paint, easily getting to the paint without Turner’s 6-foot-3-inch frame in the way.
“She impacts that game in a way that the rest of their post players can’t,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She impacts the game on the defensive end with her athletic ability and her length the way some of the other post players cant.”
With Turner and 6-foot-3-inch forward Taya Reimer inside, the battle in the paint is going to be the biggest difference from the first matchup.
“I think they just have a better inside presence and they’re a little more balanced when she’s playing,” Tuck said. “And I think that now it’s a little more — especially in the post — matched.
Turner said she thought that Notre Dame would end up facing UConn again, and it is fitting that it’s the last game of the season that she will have a chance to face them for the first time.
“They’re such a great team and they’ve had so much success this season so I figured we were going to meet again in the tournament, and of course it’s in the national championship game,” Turner said.