It's Notre Dame-UConn ... again
Elite rivals meeting in national semis for third year in row
NEW ORLEANS -- It is the game every basketball fan wants to see. It is the game ESPN wants to broadcast. It is the most intense rivalry in women’s college basketball.
It is Notre Dame-Connecticut. Again.
The Irish and Huskies will collide for the fourth time this season, and 41st time in series history in the NCAA semifinals on Sunday, but this time around not only there will be bragging rights on the line, but a ticket to the national championship game.
“I think it’s great for not only women’s basketball but for the fans,” Notre Dame senior Skylar Diggins said. “I think this is what the NCAA wanted -- this game. I think it’s great because we’ll get the most people watching our game when we play. It’s one of the best rivalries in college basketball over the last few years -- men’s or women’s -- and I’m excited about the opportunity to advance to another national championship.”
“I think there are always big games that attract the casual fan to the game,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “And so I think that's what we're doing for women's basketball. I think it is the most heated rivalry in women's basketball and it's a game that everybody enjoys watching. And we enjoy playing. I think it's a fun game. And you know it's going to be a battle. It's going to be a war. So I think that makes it even more fun to watch.”
The series was not always this intense. When the two squads first began meeting in 1996 after the Irish joined the Big East Conference, UConn had Notre Dame’s number. The Huskies won the first 11 contests in the series. Finally, in a regular-season league meeting in 2001, the Irish broke the trend with a 92-76 victory. Later that year, Notre Dame went on to defeat UConn in the NCAA semifinals 90-75 en route to claiming the program’s first national title.
“We beat them in 2001 and won the national championship, I think that was a big moment for us to finally get to that point and to win a national title upsetting UConn in the semifinal,” McGraw said. “And I think that game certainly gave us and our program kind of a great momentum swing.”
The two programs went back and forth for the next few years, and then UConn went on a 12-game winning streak starting in 2005. It took six years to turn the tide, but Notre Dame finally snapped the skid, defeating the Huskies 72-63 in the 2011 NCAA semifinals.
|* Big East championship game|
|Notre Dame 73, UConn 72|
|Notre Dame 96, UConn 87 (3OT)|
|Notre Dame 61, UConn 59*|
|PAST TWO NATIONAL SEMIFINALS|
|2011: Notre Dame 83, UConn 75 (OT)|
|2012: Notre Dame 72, UConn 63|
Since then, the Irish have dominated the series, winning seven of the past eight meetings and four in a row, including an 83-75 overtime victory in last year’s NCAA semifinals. In the past five years, UConn has lost just 11 times and seven of those losses have come at the hands of the Irish.
“I think we’ve overcome the intimidation factor that they have over so many teams,” Diggins said. “When you a play a team with so many national championships and great All-Americans year after year, there’s an intimidation factor behind it. We’ve overcome that and come out being the aggressors.”
And while the Irish have made incredible strides becoming one of the elite women’s basketball programs in the nation, the Huskies are still the team to beat, not to mention another hurdle to clear on the way to play in the national championship game for the third consecutive year.
It doesn’t matter that the Irish have beaten UConn three times this year -- twice during the regular season and once in the Big East title game. The games have been extremely close. Two have been decided by two points or less, and one went to triple overtime.
“All three of the first three games were decided within the last couple of minutes,” Diggins said. “And I think both teams had an opportunity to win the game. I was proud how my team just made big plays toward the end.”
“Sometimes, you know if you play your best, you’re going to win,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. “But in the Notre Dame game, that’s not the case. Every decision you make may have something to do with the outcome of the game.”
When the two squads meet in the NCAA semifinals for the third consecutive season, neither team needs any extra motivation. Both teams will be scrapping for every rebound, every point, every loose ball -- just like in the first three contests this season -- but there is a little more on the line this time.
“It's not about the Xs and Os between us,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “We know each other like it's the back of our hand. We've played them so many times throughout the year. And this is it. This is one and done. And the stakes are high. So we just have to learn from our past mistakes.”
“I don't think there's that much change,” Notre Dame junior Kayla McBride said. “I think there are a few things here and there. We see on film what's wrong, we adjust from there. They couldn't have changed that much in about a week and a half. So we just try to go out there and play hard and play with intensity.”
If Notre Dame can defeat Connecticut for the fourth time this season, it would be a first for McGraw against one opponent during her lengthy tenure at the school.
“It's been an unbelievable three-game series for those teams,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said. “Anything can happen.”