HARTFORD, Conn. -- It is not often that a game featuring Connecticut is a come-from-behind victory. After trailing by as many as 12, top-ranked UConn pulled out an 80-71 win over rival No. 3 Notre Dame in front of a sellout crowd at the XL Center on Sunday afternoon.
With six ties and eight lead changes, this game had the feeling of a possible upset. That is, until it didn't anymore. A 26-9 run over the course of the fourth quarter, led by Azurá Stevens, gave UConn its first lead since the first half and ultimately shut the door on the Fighting Irish hopes for pulling off the unexpected.
"We just had a stretch of ugly, and unfortunately, it was the last five minutes," Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.
The win did not come without adversity. Junior Katie Lou Samuelson returned to the lineup after sitting out the last four games with a sprained left foot. She led the Huskies with 18 points and shot 5-of-10 from the floor. Early in the fourth quarter, however, she left the game after tweaking her left ankle. She returned briefly before the game ended, but her status is uncertain moving forward.
To complicate matters further, Gabby Williams did not play a minute in the second half due to an ongoing struggle with migraines. So trailing in the fourth quarter and in need of some much needed energy, the Huskies found a boost from Stevens, who netted 10 of her 17 points in the fourth period.
"We didn't really have a great answer to her tonight," McGraw said. "We tried to front, and they threw it over us. We tried to play behind and she shot over us."
Said Stevens, a transfer from Duke who sat out last season: "I was just trying to help the team out anyway that I could. I was trying to take advantage of the mismatches."
Four other UConn players also scored in double figures. Samuelson led the way with 18 points, Napheesa Collier added 15, Kia Nurse 13 and Crystal Dangerfield 12.
But Stevens did a little bit of everything. She snagged eight rebounds and disrupted Notre Dame's offense. She also did things that won't show up on the stat sheet, such as tipping a loose ball to Nurse for the layup that gave the Huskies the lead for good with 3:54 to play.
"She was doing things that most people don't see her do," Samuelson said. "Her being able to go show the world and our team what she can do in those crunch moments was huge for us. She's such a great player, and once she becomes more comfortable, she'll fit in even more."
Stevens showed why she can be such a matchup nightmare, even without a consistent 3-point shot. The 6-foot-6 junior was lethal inside, but demonstrated versatility through moving around the perimeter, driving and even hitting a pull-up jumper from the short corner. The defense particularly struggled in the fourth quarter to handle screens.
"Phee [Collier] did a really great job of finding me down low," Stevens said. "We were working really well together, along with Kia and Crystal coming off of screens. We were able to really stretch the defense out. The post was really wide open toward the end of the game, so we did a really good job of getting easy scores in the paint."
Stevens' play in the second half buoyed a UConn team that was disappointed by its play in the first half. The Huskies were outrebounded by seven in the first two quarters, giving up 11 offensive rebounds and eight second-chance points. Notre Dame beat UConn to loose balls and pressured the Huskies into an uncharacteristic six turnovers.
"I'm coaching a team that's capable of getting down a lot and giving up layups and second-chance shots," Auriemma said. "We are that team. This team is missing a lot of things. We refuse to acknowledge it sometimes, and it catches up to you like it did today."
Marina Mabrey finished with a game-high 21 points, including four 3-pointers, to lead Notre Dame. Arike Ogunbowale contributed 19.
UConn, though, weathered the storm and played through the adversity, even without two All-Americans on the floor in crucial moments. Mabrey was held to just six points in the second half, and the last Notre Dame field goal came with 4:22 remaining in the game.
"When you get in this situation where you're on the back side of things and you're down," Nurse said, "it's about how well you can stay together as a team and play together as a team that will get you back in the game."
If there was a question for the Huskies last season, it was whether they could handle adversity. Could they rally from being smacked in the mouth? Down the stretch Sunday, UConn executed in some unfavorable circumstances.
"When it was time to win the game, they made all of the plays they needed to make to win the game," Auriemma said.