NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Notre Dame and Connecticut may not have met in a year, but players and coaches do not need any reminders about how intense the rivalry is between the two women’s basketball perennial powers.
As if there wasn’t enough on the line when the two undefeated squads clash in Tuesday’s NCAA championship game.“I love the rivalry,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think it's the one that gets your competitive juices flowing. I think it's something that you look forward to. You want to be coaching for this kind of game and this kind of moment.”
“I think those are the games we kind of live for,” Connecticut senior guard Bria Hartley said. “Those games when we’re playing a really good team and you know it comes down to who is going to make the plays, who is going to step up and win, whether we came out on the losing end or with the win.”
The last time Notre Dame lost was to UConn 83-65 in the 2013 NCAA semifinals. It left a bitter taste in their mouths and fueled a history-making season for the program -- a season that did not include the Huskies on the regular-season schedule for the first time in decades due to conference realignment.
“We are very competitive and it always seems to come down to the wire, but it is just a different feeling when you lose to UConn,” Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride said. “I don’t know if it’s because of the rivalry or because it is just so intense but it makes it more than any other game. I like and have respect for their players, but as a program and a player on Notre Dame, I dislike them.”
Last year, the two squads met four times. Notre Dame got the best of the Huskies in the first three contests, including an Irish victory in the Big East championship game, which was Connecticut’s last loss. The Irish won two of the games by two points or less, and pulled out the third in triple-overtime.
“When they beat us three times in a row that created more of a rivalry because they were all such close games and came down to the last minute,” Connecticut sophomore forward Breanna Stewart said.
The losses to Notre Dame were difficult for the Huskies, but in the end propelled the Huskies to an eighth national title.
“You come to Connecticut to win,” Connecticut senior center Stefanie Dolson said. “Those losses were hard, but they were all learning experiences for us. Each game we did lose to them, we learned more about ourselves and their team. Ultimately, even though we lost during the season, we won when it mattered in the Final Four.”
The series was not always this intense. When the two squads first began playing 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.
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.
Since then, the Irish have dominated the series, winning seven of the last nine meetings. In the last six years, UConn has lost just 11 times and seven of those losses have come at the hands of the Irish.
Players and coaches on both teams admit the rivalry is a bit heated at times, but that makes Tuesday’s game even more attractive for basketball fans.
“I don't think that we are very fond of each other,” Stewart said. “I think everyone knows that. But, at the same time, we still respect each other and know that [Tuesday] night, it's going to be a huge battle.”
“I wouldn’t say I hate Notre Dame,” Hartley said. “I like playing them and that competiveness. I want to win, of course, but I don’t hate them. I want to go out there and play against the best team.”
Even the youngsters on both rosters appreciate how special playing in this rivalry is.
“I know that there is definitely no love lost between the two teams,” Notre Dame freshman Taya Reimer said. “I mean watching games in the past, especially in the past few years being so competitive, I’m definitely excited to play in this game and to be a part of the rivalry. Hopefully, it will be a good one that goes down in history.”
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma compares the recent history of the series to when the Huskies started beating Tennessee, a frequent national contender, on a regular basis.
“You knew at some point it was going to get a little chippy,” Auriemma said. “And it did. For the longest time, from 2001 to I don't know when, it was all one sided. So, of course, it was civil. Because it just doesn't have that intensity level yet. But then once you start playing each other two, three times, four times a year, it gets pretty intense for lots of reasons. It's only natural.”
Auriemma believes there need to be more rivalries like Connecticut and Notre Dame and games that have a high intensity level in order to help grow the game.
“There are more than there have been in the past, but I think people out there need to see it,” Auriemma said. “I think it's good that an awful lot of people on a really big stage are going to get to see it [Tuesday] night.
“Whether Connecticut wins [Tuesday] or Notre Dame wins [Tuesday], the actual game itself will. The actual game of women's basketball come Wednesday morning will be better off for what happens [Tuesday] than if it had never happened. I truly believe that.”