With injuries abound, UConn-Notre Dame rivalry game won't be what fans expect

UConn's Paige Bueckers will be in the lineup for Saturday's rivalry game against Notre Dame, but plenty of other stars are sidelined. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

UConn’s Paige Bueckers will be in the lineup for Saturday’s rivalry game against Notre Dame, but plenty of other stars are sidelined. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

The rivalry between Notre Dame and Connecticut contains all the makings of one of the greatest in women’s basketball history.

Intense? Check. Competitive? Absolutely. High stakes? Quite often. Superstar talent? Almost always.

They’ve met six times in the Final Four or national championship game since 2011 with the game’s brightest stars at the helm. UConn leads all colleges in WNBA No. 1 overall picks (five) and first-round picks (26) while Notre Dame still ranks among the best at two and 10, respectively. Each boasts three alumni on the recently named USA Basketball training camp roster.

When the programs face each other again in Connecticut for a top-15 matchup on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, FOX), it might not live up to the illustrious hype around the storied rivalry. For the second consecutive season, injuries have altered the starting lineups and kept at least one superstar out of the contest.

“Unfortunately, the teams that you think you’re going to be watching next week, next month, two months from now, may not look at all like they look today,” Geno Auriemma said in December when the Hall of Fame Showcase matchup between his Huskies and North Carolina endured the same difficulty. “And that’s just part of the game right now. It’s a big part of the game right now.”

Injuries mar UConn-Notre Dame rivalry

In this case, the list of players in street clothes for Saturday’s matchup between No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 8 UConn is lengthy.

Though UConn redshirt junior Paige Bueckers is back after missing last year’s rivalry game, the Huskies are without junior shooting guard Azzi Fudd (ACL), fifth-year guard/forward Aubrey Griffin (ACL), sophomore forward Ayanna Patterson (knee), freshman center Jana El Alfy (Achilles) and junior guard Caroline Ducharme (neck/head). The program announced on Tuesday that Ducharme will not return this year, leaving the Huskies (17-3, 9-0 Big East) with nine healthy players.

UConn stumbled early and often, but did it against the nation’s best. It has the second-best NET ranking and lost to No. 10 ranked Texas (NET 4), No. 2 UCLA (7) and No. 7 NC State (10). The Huskies are on a 12-game winning streak since adjusting the lineup and in line for an 11th consecutive conference title.

Notre Dame (14-3, 5-2 ACC) was projected to have one of the best backcourts in the nation, but remains without decorated junior point guard Olivia Miles after she sustained a knee injury in the ACC tournament nearly a year ago. She said ahead of the season she wouldn’t rush a comeback and no timeline is available for her potential return this year. She could end up taking a redshirt season. Miles had 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists in Notre Dame’s 74-60 win at home against UConn last season.

Junior guard Sonia Citron (knee sprain) missed nine games in November and December. When she returned, starting senior forward Maddy Westbeld missed a game. Freshman guard Cassandre Prosper, who enrolled early in December 2022, hasn’t played since Nov. 24 with a lower leg injury. Freshman shooting guard Emma Risch (hip surgery, out for season) and graduate guard Jenna Brown have been out for an extended period.

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 04: Head coach Geno Auriemma of the UConn Huskies meets with Head coach Niele Ivey of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after the game  at Joyce Center on December 4, 2022 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey will meet again on Saturday in Storrs, Connecticut. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The Fighting Irish were preseason favorites to take the ACC, but with Miles out and a fluctuating lineup, they’ve experienced an uphill climb. They opened with a blowout loss to South Carolina (NET 1) in Paris and dropped games against North Carolina (28) and Syracuse (47) amid an unpredictable season in the ACC.

The matchup of two elite programs impacted so heavily by injuries is emblematic of a much larger nationwide issue. TCU went from undefeated to adding walk-ons after a rash of injuries. Last weekend alone, No. 6 Stanford’s Cameron Brink, No. 4 Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee and No. 19 Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore missed their first games because of injury. All are Naismith starting five finalists.

NPOY candidates Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Hannah Hidalgo take center stage

UConn and Notre Dame still bring plenty of star power, both established and emerging in those players’ absences.

Bueckers, who moved into a power forward spot after the injuries, is averaging better numbers per minute than her Naismith-winning freshman campaign. She’s averaging 28.3 points per 40 on the most efficient shooting clips of her career (57% overall, 49.4% from 3).

The 6-foot guard scored 22 points with four assists in her only game against Notre Dame as a sophomore. She injured her knee in the final minutes of the 73-54 win and missed nearly three months before returning to lead the Huskies to the national championship game.

Freshmen KK Arnold (10.2 ppg since joining the starting lineup) and Ashlynn Shade (14 ppg since joining lineup) are stepping up around Bueckers, center Aaliyah Edwards and point guard Nika Mühl.

Notre Dame is still one of the top teams in the country because of 5-6 freshman point guard Hannah Hidalgo’s leadership on both ends of the court. Hidalgo, ranked fifth in the class by ESPN, leads Division I in steals (5.5 spg) by a margin of more than one per game. It took her fewer than 20 collegiate games to break the program record for most games with at least six steals. She has nine, snapping the tie with Skylar Diggins-Smith. Her 27.5 points per 40 minutes ranks 20th and she’s shooting 49% overall with 5.6 assists per game (24th).

Bueckers, Edwards and Hidalgo are on the Wooden Award midseason watch list. Hidalgo is one of three freshmen of the 25 players. They lead two of the highest-scoring offenses in the country.

Rivalry night heightened by pre-game honors

UConn will honor its 2003, 2004, 2013 and 2014 national championship teams prior to the game. The ’13 and ’14 teams, led by two-time MVP Breanna Stewart, will be inducted to the Huskies of Honor at halftime to join those of ’95, ’00 and ’02-04.

The 2012-13 roster lost to Notre Dame, led by Skylar Diggins-Smith, two times in the regular season, including a three-overtime game in South Bend, and again in the Big East tournament championship game. UConn and Stewart found the answers a month later in New Orleans to defeat the Irish in the Final Four.

The Huskies won the title and one year later defeated Notre Dame, 79-58, in the championship game for the first two of their four consecutive national championships.

UConn and WNBA champions Diana Taurasi, Stefanie Dolson, Kiah Stokes, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Morgan Tuck and Stewart are scheduled to be in attendance.

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