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UConn vs. Notre Dame: Rivalry brings attention to sport

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — There are few teams in women’s basketball that have been able to challenge Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies during their unprecedented 20-year run atop the sport.

First it was Pat Summitt and Tennessee. Now it’s Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame.

But the one thing that neither of those programs has been able to do — beat Auriemma when it matters most. His Huskies are 9-0 in national championship games and one win away from a 10th.

“This isn’t something that’s going to last forever,” Auriemma said. “Not going to win every single championship game that we’re in. If we’re in some more, but up to this point, it’s something that’s really hard to explain.”

Before winning his first championship in 1995, Auriemma, with his Philadelphia brashness, went right after the queen of women’s basketball. The Tennessee and UConn programs carried the flag for over a decade, playing on national television to record ratings during the regular season and then usually meeting with a national championship on the line.

While Summitt and the Lady Vols won nine of the 22 meetings between the teams, Auriemma always was victorious with the NCAA title on the line, going 4-0 including UConn’s first championship. The series came to an abrupt end after 2007 and the powerhouses haven’t played since.

In stepped McGraw and Notre Dame.

“There was a hole after Tennessee and UConn stopped playing and the Irish filled it,” said ESPN analyst Doris Burke.

The two former Big East teams started playing in 1996 with UConn winning the first 11 meetings. McGraw, another Philly area native, finally broke through in 2001, beating UConn twice — including ending the Huskies’ season in the Final Four that year.

The series really didn’t start heating up though until 2011.

After the Irish were swept in three regular-season meetings, the teams squared off in the national semifinals. Led by Skylar Diggins, the Irish once again ended the Huskies’ season. They knocked them out the next season, too, again in the Final Four.

Those two victories came during a string of seven wins in eight games for McGraw’s squad, the most success anyone has had against UConn since Tennessee.

Auriemma knew the reason for the Irish’s success. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing your own reflection.

“They’re a lot like us. And I think that’s why they have had success against us,” Auriemma said. “They have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and as a program.”

But like Summitt, McGraw and her team haven’t been able to beat the Huskies in the title game. They had a shot last season and McGraw tried to take a page from Auriemma’s book, turning the attention toward the coaches’ relationship and suggesting the two were “past that point” of replacing competitiveness with civility.

It didn’t work. The historic matchup of unbeatens turned into another UConn rout, 79-58.

“I remember back to when we were in Notre Dame’s situation,” Auriemma said. “No matter what we did, Tennessee got all the attention. And no matter how good we were, we wouldn’t be as good as them in the media’s eyes, in the fans’ eyes and in everybody’s eyes.

“So you put yourself in their shoes. They are undefeated last year. They have a great team. They have great players. They have been to the Final Four five times in a row and no matter what they do it’s, ‘Connecticut, Connecticut, Connecticut.’ At some point you just go, ‘I’m sick of this.’ Believe me, there are no hard feelings from any of that.”

The teams faced each other again Tuesday night for another championship, a much friendlier meeting with none of the negative remarks of last season. Both sides were happy about that.

“We talked after the game immediately and talked all offseason and just really regretted it,” McGraw said. “It was just a little emotion talking, a little Philly coming out that I tried to suppress.”

Auriemma concurred.

“Nobody likes to have more fun than me with stuff when I can,” he said. “When it gets to be more than that, I’m not really comfortable with it, because it didn’t seem like fun. But it’s really good right now.”

And women’s basketball is the better for it.

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Follow Doug Feinberg on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg

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