HARTFORD - With the UConn women’s basketball team holding an eight-point second-quarter lead on Sunday, coach Geno Auriemma gave Kia Nurse a break.
It was a break for Notre Dame. By the time Nurse returned 2:15 later, the score was tied. Then, when the senior guard returned to the bench after 51 seconds with her second foul, the Irish responded with a run that gave them a double-digit lead.
But once the second half started, Nurse was on the floor to stay. And at the finish, she and her teammates were at their best. Nurse and teammate Azura Stevens sparked a game-closing 22-3 run as No. 1 UConn downed third-ranked Notre Dame 80-71 in the Jimmy V Classic at the XL Center.
“I’m not surprised she was out of the game when they went on their run,” Auriemma said. “She is a really, really, really good defender and she plays harder than anybody on our team and competes harder than anybody on our team. She just has this knack for making a big play or making a play when it needs to be made.
“I love her intensity level, and it has been like that from the first day she walked into the gym. And she is probably having the best year she has ever had since she has been here, and she is going to get better as the season goes along.”
Nurse is averaging 15.7 points on 59.4 percent shooting, 60.6 percent from three (all career bests in the early going).
She had 13 points Sunday and hit her first two 3-pointers to set a school record for consecutive 3-pointers made at 12. She was named to the American Athletic Conference weekly honor roll on Monday.
Her third trey, which followed her only miss, started the final burst that erased a 10-point deficit.
“It’s like every time Kia shoots a three now everyone expects it to go in,” Auriemma said. “I’m not surprised she made a big one.”
But Nurse also scored on a drive with 3:50 left that gave the Huskies the lead for good and added her final hoop on the following possession when Stevens tipped an offensive rebound to her for a layup.
And she limited Notre Dame leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale to 1-for-6 shooting and three points in the fourth quarter.
“She’s a quick guard and strong, so she can get to the basket and knock down the three,” Nurse said. “I tried to play to her weaknesses so we tried to have her go to her weak hand and get help from the weak side.”
UConn (7-0) trailed for a total of 1:21 in its first six games but was behind for 25:19 Sunday. It was also the Huskies’ biggest second-half comeback since rallying from 17 down to edge DePaul on March 1, 2008.
The win also pushed the Huskies’ home winning streak to 69, matching the third longest in NCAA history, and was in front of their first sellout at the XL Center since Feb. 18, 2013, against Baylor.
“Anytime you get a lesson or learn something it can only be beneficial,” Nurse said. “There are a lot of things that we can take from this game and work on going forward. At the end in the fourth quarter, the way we played, the energy and intensity was, I’m proud of the way we pulled through.
“I don’t know if it was just a mentality, but it looked and it felt different out there (in the fourth quarter). We came out focused and knew exactly what we were going to run. We found people and played unselfish ball. The energy and intensity was like, ‘We got this. We’re confident in each other. Let’s work together to figure this out.’ ”
With Nurse on the floor, they did.
Old and new
Among the former UConn players spotted in the sellout crowd were the program’s first All-American, Kerry Bascom, as well as Kris Lamb, Kelly Schumacher, Ashley Battle, and Kelly Faris.
But more important to the Huskies were three high school stars sitting in the front row: 2017 United States U-16 teammates junior forward Aliyah Boston (Worcester Academy), sophomore point guard Paige Bueckers, and freshman wing Azzi Fudd. For Minnesota native Bueckers and Virginia native Fudd, it was their second unofficial visit here in a month.
All three have scholarship offers from UConn.
Katie Lou Samuelson hit two 3-pointers Sunday, her first right before the end of the first half made her the 11th UConn player (and third Samuelson sister) with 200.
After the game, middle sister Karlie, now playing professionally in Italy, tweeted: “Nothing more I love to do than watch my sister play basketball. Such a fighter.”
“Karlie watches every game and she’ll go back and look at things and give me tips about what I can do better,” Katie Lou said. “Not scoring things I can do better, it’s little things like about being a good teammate and impacting the game in different ways that don’t show up in the stat sheet.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ UConn record of 398 may be tough to reach, but the family record is within her grasp. Karlie, a 2017 Stanford graduate, leads with 249 treys, while oldest sister and 2015 Stanford graduate Bonnie had 237.
“Hopefully I can do that,” Katie Lou said. “But the biggest thing so far this season is that I haven’t been concerned with the 3-point shot. I think I’ve become a better player because of it. But if I get the opportunity, I would love to do that.”
UConn remained the unanimous No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll released Monday. Notre Dame stayed third behind No. 2 Texas. Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw, who was hired in South Bend two years after Auriemma got the UConn job, coached her 1,000th game with the Irish.