Two heavyweight programs collide: Connecticut, Notre Dame meet in Nashville with perfect seasons on the line
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Muffet McGraw and Geno Auriemma were well aware of the talk. There has been a buzz throughout women’s basketball all season about the potential showdown between their undefeated teams.
Well, the wait is over.
UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0) are set to meet in an unprecedented championship clash Tuesday night.
"I think it’s something that everyone’s looked forward to all year long," McGraw said. "People were hoping we would end up here. It’s great for the game and I think it’s great we’re both undefeated coming into it. It should be a great matchup for women’s basketball."
Auriemma agreed that this once in a lifetime matchup -- the first time undefeated basketball teams, men or women, have met for the NCAA national crown -- could help grow the women’s game.
"An awful lot of people might tune in Tuesday night that wouldn’t normally tune in," he said. "A game on national television between two great teams, nothing could be better for the sport."
There’s also so much at stake for both teams.
A victory by UConn over its rival would be the ninth of Geno Auriemma’s career breaking a tie with Pat Summitt for the most all-time. And if he does it, he’ll accomplish it in Summitt’s backyard.
"I’m not a numbers guy and don’t get caught up in that stuff," Auriemma said. "Wednesday morning when I wake up, my life doesn’t change one iota. Stewie (Breanna Stewart) says she came to win four national championships, that’s what I think is more significant. For Bria (Hartley) and Stef (Dolson) to win a national championship their senior years. They get ‘X’ amount of chances to do it. God willing, I’ll get more chances down the road."
While Auriemma deflected the talk on a record title, Dolson is happy to be a part of it.
"It’s amazing," the 6-foot-5 Connecticut center said. "I mean, obviously it’s something coach isn’t going to talk about. We don’t really talk about as a team, it’s just something that we know that we have the chance help him kind of win that ninth one. ... But if it happens, for all of us, now we have two of the nine. You know we have, like I was talking about that small piece of history. It’s just something we have a chance to kind of add to the legacy of UConn and add to coach’s legacy. I think that’s something he would be extremely proud of."
It would also be the fifth unbeaten season for Auriemma and UConn and the first time the Huskies went 40-0. They’d match Baylor as the only team to accomplish that feat.
Also if the Connecticut men’s team can pull off a victory Monday night in its title game it would be the second time in a decade that both UConn programs were national champions.
Notre Dame isn’t concerned about UConn’s program. The Irish are looking for their first since 2001 -- the school’s only championship.
They have made the Final Four the past four seasons, including reaching the title game in three of those years. This year they hope for a breakthrough.
"Getting here consistently has been great for our program," McGraw said. "Taking the next step would be a huge accomplishment."
Notre Dame has owned the series lately, winning seven of the last nine meetings between the schools. The Irish players have a simple explanation why they’ve had success against the Huskies.
"We’re not afraid of them," Irish sophomore star Jewell Loyd said. "You know a lot of people, like Kayla (McBride) was saying, they look at the jersey and they’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ Obviously, UConn is a great program they’ve done a lot of things that other programs haven’t done. But we go in there we have that swagger that chip on our shoulder that we’re coming in to battle."
The former Big East schools have a mutual respect for each other, but that’s about where it ends.
There’s no love lost between the programs -- not even with the coaches.
"We don’t have a relationship," McGraw said. "I think that (the civility) got lost. When we were in the same conference, I think there was a modicum of it but I think after beating them and not feeling any respect from that, we lost something."
McGraw said it would be difficult for the civility to return.
Auriemma believes it’s only natural for the teams be testy having played so many times lately. Before the Irish bolted for the new conference, the teams had met 12 times over the past three seasons.
"Once you play each other two, three, four times a year it gets pretty intense for lots of reasons," Auriemma said. "It’s only natural. It will probably die down now that we’re not in same conference and we play each other once a year, maybe two. What was happening before wasn’t realistic, that’s not normal. It’s not healthy."
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