TAMPA, Fla. -- Brianna Turner was watching this spectacle -- the top rivalry in women's basketball -- last year when her Notre Dame teammates knocked off UConn in overtime in the Women's Final Four. This year, Turner was right in the midst of the Fighting Irish tearing the Huskies' hearts out again.
The Irish senior, who had to sit out last season after an ACL injury suffered in the 2017 NCAA tournament, came up huge Friday as Notre Dame beat UConn 81-76 to advance to Sunday's title game against Baylor. It will be a rematch of the NCAA final in 2012, when the Irish also beat the Huskies in the national semifinals.
In fact, even though UConn still leads the all-time series with the Irish 37-13, Notre Dame is 5-3 against the Huskies in the Women's Final Four.
It took guard Arike Ogunbowale's big shot in the extra period to win for the Irish last year, and she was key again Friday with a team-high 23 points. Fourteen of those came in the final period.
"I don't think it was any mystery who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "That's the way they've always played since Arike has been there.
"She still has to make those shots, and she did. She's an almost impossible matchup one-on-one, you know. We knew that going in."
But Turner was as important as any Irish player, becoming her school's all-time leading shot-blocker (371) in the process, topping Ruth Riley-Hunter, who led the Irish to the 2001 national championship and who will be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. That's good company to be in for Turner, who finished with 15 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots, including a key block against UConn's Napheesa Collier in the final minute.
"My only mindset was that UConn's season had to end tonight, no matter what it took," Turner said.
It did, but the Irish's vaunted offense had to come through in the fourth quarter when it looked as if the Huskies had taken control, going up nine with 7:52 left. Notre Dame can score like lightning can strike: suddenly and often. The Irish did that.
"We lost our heads for a couple minutes at the beginning of the fourth, took a couple of bad shots, didn't get stops, didn't communicate," said Irish senior Marina Mabrey, who had 12 points and 12 assists. "But I was saying, 'We need to get one stop, then one score, then it will go from there. Keep battling."
Notre Dame went on an 11-2 run, which included 3-pointers from Jackie Young, Ogunbowale and Mabrey. When Mabrey's trey swished with 4:25 left to make it 66-66, we once again were in for thrilling finish between these two teams.
They've been the consistent best of women's basketball over the past several years, with all of their meetings taking on the feeling of not just a game but an event. We were expecting quite a floor show on Friday. While it wasn't that for the first half, as both teams struggled offensively, the payoff was rich in the second half.
The Irish went up 76-73 with 58.3 seconds left on two Ogunbowale free throws. After Collier's shot was blocked by Turner, Ogunbowale went to the foul line again and made both, putting the Irish up 78-73. UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson then missed, and Turner got the rebound. Turner missed both foul shots, though, and UConn called timeout with 23 seconds left, down 79-73.
Samuelson missed another 3-pointer, and Turner finished off the game with two free throws.
"She's really long and athletic, and she's a player that alters shots when she's in there," Collier said of Turner. "And they are a great offensive team. It is hard to have the lead by nine and then lose the game."
The starters provided all of Notre Dame's points, with Jessica Shepard (20) and Young (11) joining Ogunbowale, Turner and Mabrey in double figures.
While the Irish were dancing their happy jig again, there were tears in UConn's locker room. Samuelson finished the game with 20 points, all coming in the second half. Collier had 15 points and 13 rebounds. They finished their careers in the top five all-time at UConn in scoring; Collier third with 2,401 and Samuelson fifth with 2,342.
But Samuelson and Collier won just one NCAA title, as freshmen. And Samuelson, who was injured in the 2016 semifinals and couldn't play in the final that year, ends her career without ever getting to play in a national championship game.
"That's my best friend," Samuelson said of Collier. "These four years have really been amazing. It's pretty sad that we're not going get to play again together. We've been through so much here. I just wish we could have pulled it out for UConn nation."
Collier and Samuelson lost just five games total in their careers. Three were in the NCAA semifinals, with Friday's disappointment following the losses to Notre Dame last year and to Mississippi State in 2017.
"We wanted to get to a championship so badly," Collier said. "I'm really proud of everything that we've been able to do this year. It wasn't easy. The fact that we were able to push through and get here is a great accomplishment, and I think we do need to sit back and acknowledge that."
But certainly after losing a lead in the fourth quarter, Auriemma and the Huskies have to be bitterly disappointed.
"Losing a game is part of life," Auriemma said. "But there's always tomorrow. There's always another game. There's always another season to get ready for.
"The thing that stings the most in your locker room, if you've ever played, is you look around and there's some people in the locker room that aren't going to be back next year. That hurts way more than the loss."
Neither team shot well in the first quarter. UConn was at 35 percent, and Notre Dame shot 30 percent. Ogunbowale didn't score in the opening period, after which the Huskies led 16-12.
The Irish opened the second quarter on a 6-0 run, and the rest of the quarter was a back-and-forth battle between two normally good offenses that were not playing well. Turner picked up her second foul with 5:59 left in the second quarter and went to the bench, a blow to Notre Dame's defense.
Freshman Christyn Williams, who torched the Irish for 28 points in the Huskies' 89-71 victory at Notre Dame on Dec. 2, hit a buzzer-beater before halftime, putting UConn up 30-29. Both teams struggled from the field in the first half, with the Huskies at 36.1 percent and the Irish at 35 percent. They were especially cold from behind the arc, going a combined 3-of-25.
Samuelson, who had seven 3-pointers in the Huskies' victory over Louisville in the Albany Regional final, went 0-for-4 from long range and was scoreless in the first half.
But Samuelson scored UConn's first points of the second half and finished the third quarter with 15 points, including three free throws with 1.0 seconds left. That put the Huskies up 54-52 going into the fourth quarter.
But with such a great offense and the Turner-led defense, the Irish prevailed.
"Brianna Turner was absolutely outstanding on defense," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Arike in the second half does what Arike does."
Now, the Irish get a chance to try to do it again and repeat as national champions.