- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- A look at the first half of Sunday's national semifinal between No. 1 seeds UConn and Notre Dame.
First-half analysis: Connecticut 39, Notre Dame 29
Overview: This thing was on even before the jump ball. During the introduction of the starting lineups, each Notre Dame player exchanged a steely look and a handshake with the opposite Connecticut player. And the play in the first half was just as focused, with the two teams going blow for blow. There was not a possession in the first half that didn't include lock-down defense. The first 20 minutes featured some of the best defense these two teams have played this year, which is saying something considering both are known for playing great defense. The Huskies finally pulled away in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds with an 11-3 run.
Key player: Kayla McBride and Skylar Diggins. Notre Dame's two star players combined for only 6 first-half points on a combined 1-for-14 shooting from the floor. Diggins, the senior point guard, shot 0-for-6 from the floor, while McBride's only bucket was at the rim. She also missed all of her pull-up jumpers, usually her strength. The first-half struggles of Notre Dame's star tandem almost overshadowed the big first half put together by UConn forward Breanna Stewart. The 6-foot-4 freshman finished the first half with 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the floor.
Key stat: The Huskies recorded seven blocks in the first half, which helped explain Notre Dame's ridiculously poor field goal percentage. The Fighting Irish started the first half shooting 2-for-21, good for only 9.5 percent accuracy. Notre Dame finished the half shooting 23.7 percent, a number clearly affected by Connecticut's effective interior defense. The block party was led by UConn center Stefanie Dolson, but Stewart also contributed a couple of roof-like rejections.
Key moment: At first it seemed like there wouldn't be one. Neither team was able to build any kind of substantial first-half lead. Each time UConn made a big play -- such as Stewart's long 3-pointer from the right wing -- the Fighting Irish would answer with a nice play of their own, such as a no-look dish from Diggins to guard Jewell Loyd.
Each team was able to overcome certain flaws by excelling in other areas. Notre Dame couldn't buy a basket from its guards, but made up for it by outrebounding UConn 25-21. Similarly, the Huskies were beat on the glass, but made up for it by getting big first-half performances from Stewart (12 points) and forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (eight points). The Huskies were able to buy a little bit of breathing room in the last few minutes of the half when guard Bria Hartley hit a 3-pointer, then, a few minutes later, Stewart hit a 3-pointer from the right corner.