Since the possibility of undefeated Connecticut and undefeated Notre Dame meeting in the national championship game seemed like a plausible season finale, Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma has been trying to downplay it. The questions came in, but Auriemma deflected them all, saying he wouldn’t talk about it until it happened.
With that long-anticipated matchup between the Huskies and the Fighting Irish finally waiting on Tuesday, it is now impossible for Auriemma to ignore.“It looked to me like, as the season went on, it almost looked like it was inevitable,” Auriemma said. “Like it was supposed to happen.”
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw has not been treating the possibility much differently. McGraw and her players have both been echoing the same refrain for a long time – “One game at a time.”
Now Connecticut is that one game.
“I think the whole country was so distracted with that and enamored with the matchup that it’s kind of nice to be in that moment,” McGraw said. “Because we really tried to block it all out and I thought we did a really good job of that during the year. But now, it’s great to have the two best teams in the country playing each other for the national championship."
Notre Dame is in its fourth consecutive Final Four after coming up short the first three times. Last season, Connecticut ousted the Irish in the semifinals en route to its eighth national championship. That is the last time they lost a game. The two years before that, Notre Dame lost to both Baylor and Texas A&M in the final. The Irish are also the last team to beat the Huskies, in last season’s Big East tournament championship game.
A national champion will be crowned on Tuesday, and we know that the team will do so without a loss all season. It has happened seven times previously, four times by Connecticut, but the matchup between two unbeaten teams is a first for the sport in tournament play in any division.
“Our sport probably doesn't have enough significant moments,” Auriemma said. “I don't know that we have the kind of moments that happen [Sunday] night at the men's Final Four where you get a seven and eight seed playing for the national championship. I don't think we have enough of those moments in our game.
“So to have the spotlight on Tuesday on two teams that one of them is going to lose for the first time this year, and it's pretty remarkable when you think about how hard that is to do for one team, much less two.”
What a win would mean for …
Repeat: A win would mean back-to-back titles for the third time in program history. The Huskies are 37-4 in the NCAA tournament when playing as the defending national champions. UConn actually won three in a row between 2002-04 and pulled off the double in 2009-10.
“No matter what, if we win [Tuesday], it’s going to be amazing,” senior center Stefanie Dolson said. “As a senior, winning a second title would be great. It would kind of be the perfect ending, but we can’t think about that right now.”
Geno: Head coach Geno Auriemma is already drawing comparisons to the game’s greatest coaches and the talk is well-deserved. He has won NCAA tournament game, second all-time behind only former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who is the all-time leader with 112. Auriemma’s .850 winning percentage (96-17) is the highest for any coach in tournament history.
A victory against Notre Dame on Tuesday would improve him to 9-0 in NCAA title games and give him the most NCAA titles in women’s basketball history. He is currently tied with Summitt with eight trophies to his name.
Streak: A win against the Irish would extend UConn’s winning streak to 46 games, which ranks as the third-longest winning streak in school history. The Huskies’ last loss was a 61-59 setback to Notre Dame in the 2013 Big East championship.
“No one wants to see us win, so we’re going to win anyway,” Dolson said.
Perfection V: The Huskies will seek their fifth undefeated national championship season on Tuesday against Notre Dame. UConn also went undefeated and won the national title in 1994-95, 2001-02, 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Seniors: Notre Dame is in the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year, but despite the Irish being a perennial contender for title, the trophy has remained elusive in recent years. UND’s only title came in 2001, but the Irish, especially seniors Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker, are looking to change that on Tuesday. The Irish are in the NCAA title game for the third time in four years and fourth time overall.
“It means a lot; this is my third one, so I’m really excited,” senior Ariel Braker said. “We couldn’t get it right the last times so I think everyone is really excited to be going back. We aren’t done yet though.”
“It’s surreal that this is going to be my last game in a Notre Dame uniform,” senior Kayla McBride said. “This season is something special, being undefeated, and with this team.
To be in a national championship game and be able to play for coach McGraw and with these girls … it means more than you know.
Ace: Senior Natalie Achonwa’s season-ending torn ACL against Baylor in the regional final has brought the Irish even closer together as they seek the NCAA title. Before Sunday’s semifinal game against Maryland, the Irish were wearing warm-up shirts that read “Ace” on the backs, in support of their sidelined teammate.
“The past three years they came up short,” freshman Taya Reimer said. “Before the season started, it was one of our goals to get back here for them and to win one for them. Especially now that Ace [Natalie Achonwa] is out. We’ve all pulled together as a team. We want it even more.”
With Achowna out -- the team’s leading rebounder -- there was a collective effort in the semifinals against Maryland to make up for the tremendous loss.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my team than I was [against Maryland] to see every single person who went in the game step up to help us win whether it showed up in the stat sheet or not,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “This team’s completely united. We now have more of a cause. We’re playing for Natalie. We want to win this for her. We want to win it for the seniors.”
The Rivalry: Notre Dame and Connecticut will meet for the 16th time since the 2009-10 season, but just the first time this year. Since the 2011 national semifinal, Notre Dame has won seven of the past nine matchups between the two squads with three of those going to overtime. It is the fourth consecutive year the two programs will meet in the Final Four, but the three previous meetings came in the semifinals.
“This is for the national championship,” Braker said. “We’ve never played UConn for the national championship. This is whole different magnitude, it’s a whole different level, a whole different stage. Since we haven’t played them the entire year there is going to be a different feel to the game. I’m glad the matchup has finally come so everyone could see it and stop asking questions about it.”
Perfection: Notre Dame has never put together a flawless season, but with a win against UConn the Irish would become the fifth team in NCAA Division I history to accomplish the feat. Connecticut has been perfect four times, while Texas, Tennessee and Baylor have all turned in one unblemished season.
A Rare Occurrence
The matchup between UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0) will be the first time in NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship (Divisions I, II and III) history that two undefeated teams will meet with the national title on the line. The only other time the champion from all three divisions went undefeated was 1995, when Connecticut took home the Division I trophy, North Dakota State won in Division II and Capital was crowned in Division III.
Here are the finals matchups and records following the national championship game in each season that there has been an undefeated team:
1984 – Texas (34-0) defeated Southern California (31-5), 72-61
1995 – Connecticut (35-0) defeated Tennessee (34-3), 70-64
1998 – Tennessee (39-0) defeated Louisiana Tech (31-4), 93-75
2002 – Connecticut (39-0) defeated Oklahoma (32-4), 82-70
2009 – Connecticut (39-0) defeated Louisville (34-5), 76-54
2010 – Connecticut (39-0) defeated Stanford (36-2), 53-47
2012 – Baylor (40-0) defeated Notre Dame (35-4), 80-61
1995 – North Dakota St. (32-0) def. Portland State (26-6)
2014 – Bentley (35-0) def. West Texas A&M (32-3)
1995 – Capital (33-0) def. Wisconsin-Oshkosh (28-3)
1996 – Wisconsin-Oshkosh (31-0) def. Mount Union (25-8)
1999 – Washington (Mo.) (30-0) def. St. Benedict (28-2)
2000 – Washington (Mo.) (30-0) def. Southern Maine (26-6)
2008 – Howard Payne (33-0) def. Messiah (30-3)
2009 – George Fox (32-0 ) def. Washington (Mo.) (26-5)
2013 – DePauw (34-0) def. Wisconsin-Whitewater (26-7)
2014 – FDU-Florham (33-0) def. Whitman (31-2)