Olivia Miles admitted she was too timid, too much in her own head during Notre Dame’s 74-72 loss at the buzzer against Maryland Thursday.
Back on the floor at Purcell Pavilion and playing in one of college basketball’s premier rivalries Sunday afternoon, she played more like a woman possessed. Miles led the Irish with 21 points, 15 of which came on 7 of 8 shooting in the first half, and added four assists as No. 7 Notre Dame (6-1) led by as many as 18 and downed No. 3 Connecticut (6-1) 74-60 in the Jimmy V Classic.
“I think the sky's the limit for her,” Irish head coach Niele Ivey said of Miles. “She's just scratching the surface. She's a sophomore, thank God. But yeah, she's gifted.”
The last three meetings between the Irish and Huskies have been closer to beatdowns than nailbiters. There was the 81-57 Irish loss in 2019, the last time both played in the Jimmy V Classic and Muffet McGraw’s last faceoff with UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. Niele Ivey was on the receiving end of a 73-54 loss in Storrs last December.
Uconn was looking for its fourth top-10 victory this season but was outscored 46-16 in the paint and outrebounded 39-26 by the Irish, who earned their first regular season victory against the Huskies since 2013.
It was the type of “historical moment,” Ivey said, that she's been dreaming of, the reason she returned to South Bend to take the Notre Dame job in 2020. She praised Miles and Maddy Westbeld, who finished third among all scorers with 17 points, for leading her group with “confidence and swag.”
“We’re going to really enjoy this game and this moment,” Ivey said.
Uconn’s leading scorer, Azzi Fudd, averaged 24 points during the Huskies’ first six games but missed the entire second half with a knee injury and finished with no points. Auriemma said her absence was a precaution after a teammate landed on her in the first quarter.
“I think it puts people in a tough spot because now all of a sudden, it dawns on them, ‘I have to make the shots that we normally would get for somebody else,’ ” Auriemma said on the impact of Fudd’s absence. “ ‘I have to score more points.’ And it's daunting on the road against a really good team.”
Miles got Notre Dame going in the first three minutes with two uncontested layups in transition. Auriemma, who had been laying back on his chair with his hands behind his head, got up and began pacing the sideline, as he would for the remainder of the half.
Auriemma lamented allowing Miles to drive to her right, her strong hand, for each of her first five buckets.
“We were overly concerned (and we shouldn't have been) with making sure that the wings didn't get any open 3s,” he said, “when the whole point was, ‘Let's make sure nobody gets into the lane.’ ”
Auriemma’s Huskies made just 5 of their 18 first-quarter shots and were undone in the last two minutes of the quarter by seven straight points from Miles. After sandwiching a jumper with two more stylish finishes on the break, Miles kicked the ball out to Dara Mabrey for a wide-open 3 to complete a 9-2 run and put the Irish up 18-13.
The Irish were rampant in the second quarter, outscoring the Huskies 23-11 and shooting 69% from the floor, compared to Uconn’s 28%, in those ten minutes. While UConn had just one turnover in the first quarter, they had five alone the first five minutes of the second.
Instead of a trademark game-changing run from Auriemma’s Huskies, it was Ivey’s Irish who again ended the quarter with a flurry. Westbeld and Mabrey sandwiched another impressive finish inside from Miles with 3s to make it a 41-24 game at the half.
Uconn went on a 12-2 run and cut the lead to as little as five in the third quarter after Miles caught Nika Muhl in the face with a stray elbow and was called for an intentional foul upon review. Westbeld would lead the Irish response, following her own miss from beyond the arc for a three-point play to punctuate a 9-2 run before KK Bransford took a charge on Uconn’s last possession of the quarter.
After showing a lack of composure in similar moments earlier this season, Ivey was proud of how her team rallied following a quick huddle while officials reviewed Miles’ foul.
“It showed a lot of maturity with this group,” Ivey said. “So I’m really excited that we grew in that moment, especially playing a team like Connecticut.”
After a pair of free throws at the start of the fourth quarter from Lou Lopez Senechal, who led the Huskies with 21 points, Notre Dame had a final answer. Miles scythed through the UConn defense and scored at the rim yet again to finish off a 6-0 run that put the Irish up 16 with just over seven minutes to play. The Irish led by double-digits the rest of the way.
Auriemma noted championships aren’t won or lost in December. You do learn, he said, what can help or prevent you from winning one.
Better yet, Miles and the Irish learned what a Final Four-caliber performance over 40 minutes feels like.
“It's kind of scary,” she said, “what we can do when we play really well.”