Women's basketball: UConn, Notre Dame set to resume rivalry at the Final Four with similarly unselfish teams
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The two head coaches were at a Final Four welcome event Wednesday evening when UConn's Geno Auriemma bumped into Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw.
"She said, 'I don't even think of you guys anymore until it's time to play you, whereas before it was a constant,'" Auriemma said of no longer being Big East Conference rivals with the Fighting Irish. "No matter what else was happening, you knew there was a possibility that you were going to play each other four times and it just ...
"It does seem easier, I think, on the coaches to not have to constantly be confronted with Notre Dame this, Notre Dame that, Connecticut this, Connecticut that."
That said, here the two are once more.
Notre Dame this. Connecticut that.
The teams, each seeded first in their respective regions headed into the NCAA tournament, are set to meet in the national semifinals Friday at Nationwide Arena (9:30 p.m., ESPN2).
UConn (36-0) is making its 11th straight Final Four appearance and vying for its 12th national title. Notre Dame (33-3), an underdog to even reach the Final Four after it had four players endure season-ending knee injuries, suffered its only losses this season to fellow Final Four participants UConn and Louisville (twice).
That matchup will be preceded by the first game of the doubleheader between Mississippi State (36-1) and Louisville (36-2) at 7 in what is only the fourth Women's Final Four to feature all four No. 1 seeds. The teams have six losses combined.
UConn and Notre Dame have met 47 times since they first faced off on Jan. 18, 1996, with UConn winning the first 11 games. The Huskies lead the series 36-11.
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Notre Dame, however, won seven of eight games in a stretch from the 2011 Final Four in Indianapolis through the 2013 Big East tournament final in Hartford.
The teams have played six times in the NCAA tournament and twice in the national championship game, with UConn winning those meetings in 2014 in Nashville and 2015 in Tampa.
In 2011-13 the Huskies and the Fighting Irish played four times each season, twice during the regular season, once in the Big East tournament and once at the Final Four, creating some memorably terse exchanges between the Hall of Fame two coaches.
UConn now plays in the American Athletic Conference and Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They competed once during the regular season this year, an 80-71 UConn victory on Dec. 3 at the XL Center.
"I think now that we only play them once a year, I think there is some distance to the rivalry," McGraw said. "I think that it always, of course, will be a rivalry just because they're the best team in the country right now. But I think it's not that intensity that we had when we were in the Big East."
Added McGraw, smiling: "But that could change tomorrow."
In the December matchup between the teams, with UConn ranked first in the nation and Notre Dame third, UConn trailed 65-54 after three quarters before outscoring the Irish 26-9 in the fourth quarter.
UConn played the second half without Gabby Williams (migraine) and the fourth quarter without Katie Lou Samuelson (ankle), but still managed the fourth-quarter charge, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd of 15,564.
Samuelson had 18 points and Azura Stevens, who started the second half in place of Williams, finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Napheesa Collier had 15 points and nine rebounds.
Marina Mabrey led Notre Dame with 21 points.
Auriemma called that triumph a "bigger moment" for the Huskies this season.
"The whole second half, but mostly the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame game," Auriemma said. "Gabby was on the bench the whole second half ... we had some guys step up and make some huge plays to beat a really, really good team, a great team, actually. That made me think, 'OK, we have some other things going for us other than just the players that everybody says are the best players."
Notre Dame is hoping for its "bigger moment" today.
"Playing them before, we've lost once and I think this is our time to win," Notre Dame's Mabrey said. "We gave that one away. We just had a slight mental lapse and you can't have a mental lapse against them. It hurt when it happened, but it's over now and we had to move on."
This article is written by Vickie Fulkerson from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.