HARTFORD, Conn. -- Azura Stevens was playing in her first game for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team against Notre Dame, but had faced the Irish four times in her two years at Duke.
Did being familiar with Notre Dame help the redshirt junior forward Sunday?
"Besides the familiarity of wanting to beat them? Not really," Stevens said with a laugh.
Stevens was 0-4 against the Irish while at Duke. And in the fourth quarter Sunday, it appeared the losing streak would follow her to UConn as Notre Dame took a 10-point lead.
But with her new team came new teammates, and they responded. Stevens and senior guard Kia Nurse combined for 15 points in a closing 22-3 run as the top-ranked Huskies rallied to defeat No. 3 Notre Dame 80-71 in the annual Jimmy V Classic before a loud sellout crowd of 15,564 at XL Center.
"I'm getting more minutes and they're doing a great job helping me out anyway they can and I'm trying to help them anyway I can." Stevens said. "It speaks to how much this team is about the team and not individual players. I'm grateful to have the teammates I have."
The win was UConn's 69th straight at home, matching the third-longest streak in NCAA history behind UConn (99) and Stanford (82). The last home loss for the Huskies was here to Notre Dame in the 2013 Big East championship game.
UConn (7-0) has also won seven consecutive games against Notre Dame since that 2013 loss.
All-American Katie Lou Samuelson returned to the starting lineup after missing the last four games with a left foot sprain and led the Huskies with 18 points. But with 9:40 left, Samuelson rolled her right ankle while driving to the basket and went back to the locker room. She returned to the bench with 4:50 to go but played for only 1.2 seconds in the final minute as UConn coach Geno Auriemma put her in to make a possible inbounds pass.
"I sprained it, so we'll see how it is tomorrow," Samuelson said. "This one seemed more like an ankle sprain because it was while I was running across the baseline."
Stevens finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. All-American Napheesa Collier had 15 points and nine rebounds, while Nurse had 13 points and made her first two 3-pointers to break a tie with Samuelson and Caroline Doty to establish a UConn record for consecutive made 3s at 12. Crystal Dangerfield added 12 points and five assists.
None of it seemed like it would matter. Notre Dame (7-1) entered the game shorthanded, having lost All-American Brianna Turner for the season as she rehabilitates her surgically-repaired left knee. The Irish took another hit Tuesday as freshman Mikayla Vaughn suffered a season-ending knee surgery. UConn became short-handed as the game went on as All-American Gabby Williams was kept on the bench for the second half while dealing with a migraine headache followed by the Samuelson injury.
UConn led by as many as eight in the first half but Arike Ogunbowale scored the first seven points in a 21-2 run that gave the Irish a 42-30 lead. A Samuelson 3, the 200th of her career, made it 43-36 at halftime. It was 62-54 going to the fourth quarter and Lili Thompson's second trey of the period pushed the Notre Dame lead to 10 at 68-58 with 7:48.
Then the Huskies took over.
"We're fortunate to have on this team is a confidence in each other," Nurse said. "If someone goes down, two people go down, we're able to understand what we have to deal with at this moment. There was a focus and mentality that we could still pull this game out. We had time to do it. Let's run good offense and play shut down defense and win it."
"The thing we did well in the fourth quarter was feed off our own energy. We tried to make sure that we finished the game the way they we wanted to. I was in the right place at right time when Z tipped one to me. Megan (Walker) did some great things on the boards offensively and defensively. Z and Pheesa inside were incredible."
A 3-pointer by Nurse, four points by Stevens, and baskets by Dangerfield and Stevens gave the Huskies their first lead since midway through the second quarter with 4:38 remaining. Ogunbowale answered for the Irish, but Nurse's drive and layup put UConn up 71-70 with 3:50 left. Nurse then scored after a deflection of an offensive rebound, and Stevens' baseline jumper made it a five-point lead with 2:16 remaining.
Four free throws by Collier and one from Walker in the final 41.3 seconds iced it.
"We decided that we weren't going to lose this game," Collier said. "We needed to do the little things. We needed to get out in transition and do the things that we're good at.
"We learned that when we play the way that we're supposed to we can be really good. When we don't, you saw what can happen in the first three quarters. They were pretty bad. We have a lot of fight, but there are a lot of things we need to work on."
Marina Mabrey led Notre Dame with 21 points. Ogunbowale added 19 points, but needed to take 25 shots to get them. Nebraska transfer Jessica Shepard, who had been overwhelmed in two games against the Huskies with the Cornhuskers the past two seasons, was solid with 10 points and eight rebounds, but misfired on a couple key putbacks down the stretch when the Irish needed baskets.
Notre Dame Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who was working her 1,000th game on the Irish sidelines, didn't think her team got tired even though it was down to eight healthy players and has not played a game in South Bend since the opener Nov. 11.
"Not in a game like this, the adrenaline was flowing," McGraw said.
"We're very disappointed. We played well for 35 minutes but then we had some lapses."
The Huskies will make the trip to South Bend next season, with the contest expected to be part of a two-game journey that will include Collier's homecoming game at Saint Louis University.
UConn will try to give Auriemma career win No. 999 Friday night when it visits DePaul.
He hopes the team that played the last eight minutes will show up at the start in Chicago.
"It's indicative of the two teams I'm coaching right now," Auriemma said. "I'm coaching a team that is capable of getting down a lot and giving up layups and second shots. We are that team. We put ourselves in that situation because we played against a really good team, and we're missing a lot of things. We refuse to acknowledge it sometimes on our team, and it catches up to you like it did today.
"But there is the other team that I coach, the team that played in the fourth quarter, that when it was time to win the game they made all the plays they needed to make to win. So things like that fourth quarter remind our team how good we can be. We can be that good. It was really good for us to learn that today."