March 29, 2001
By CHUCK SCHOFFNER
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS (AP) - The more Connecticut and Notre Dame play each other, the more important the game becomes.
They first met in a regular-season game, then faced each other in the final of the Big East Conference tournament. Three weeks later, they're getting ready to play it again, this time with a berth in the national championship game at stake.
A new rivalry in women's basketball has been born.
"Us and Tennessee used to be Ali-Frazier," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "This is Ali-Foreman."
Connecticut, the defending champion, plays Notre Dame on Friday night in the national semifinals. Both are 32-2. Both advanced as No. 1 seeds. Both went 15-1 in the Big East. The winner advances to Sunday night's title game, against Purdue or Southwest Missouri State.
This is Connecticut's fifth Final Four, and the Huskies usually run into Tennessee about now. They beat the Lady Vols for both of their national titles, last year and in 1995, and lost to them in the 1996 semifinals.
But Tennessee isn't here, leaving the Final Four to the new rivalry. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is just happy she can call it that. Before the Irish beat Connecticut 92-76 in South Bend on Jan. 15, they had been 0-11 against the Huskies.
"This is the first year we actually have had a rivalry," McGraw said. "Because I don't know that you can have a rivalry until you beat somebody."
Connecticut beat Notre Dame 78-76 in the second game on Sue Bird's shot at the buzzer. ESPN made the game an "Instant Classic" and it already has been shown on the network.
That has added to the aura surrounding this one.
"Obviously, it was hard to go out on that loss," Notre Dame forward Kelley Siemon said. "But I think this is going to be just an incredible game. I expect it to be just like that. We both have something to prove, something we are shooting for.
"The Big East championship was a big deal, but obviously going to the national championship is even bigger."
Connecticut had expected to be back here again. Auriemma went so far last April as to guarantee another championship because most of his key players would be back. But he doesn't have all of them now.
Svetlana Abrosimova, a first-team All-American last season, went down with a foot injury on Feb. 1 and hasn't played since. If the Huskies thought then that was the worst that could happen, they were wrong.
In the Big East final, Shea Ralph blew out a knee and was finished for the season. She, too, was a first-team All-American last year and had been named the outstanding player at the Final Four.
"It is definitely difficult to swallow when two of your best players go down," Bird said. "But at the same time, we realized the season was not over and we knew that of anyone, both Shea and Svet would want us to get to the Final Four and win another national championship."
So here they are. The Huskies won their first four NCAA tournament games by an average of 37.5 points and only one of those opponents scored more than 48.
Flashy freshman Diana Taurasi has become the new go-to player. She has been the Huskies' leading scorer (16.0) over the last seven games.
"She has NBA range. She can shoot over anyone," said Notre Dame's Niele Ivey, who will be playing in her hometown. "I think she's just playing great basketball right now. UConn has a lot of weapons, so we are going to have to be on our toes and make sure we have a hand up in everyone's face."
Notre Dame has a few weapons of its own, starting with center Ruth Riley, the national player of the year. Riley shoots 63 percent, averages 18.4 points and often looks like Bill Walton passing out of double teams.
Siemon knows how to get open when that happens and can shoot with either hand. Guard Alicia Ratay leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (.547) and Ivey is a fearless penetrator who's shooting 45 percent from behind the arc.
Ivey is so important to the Irish that she played all 40 minutes in both games with UConn. The Huskies' plan for Ivey: make somebody else handle the ball.
"I think Notre Dame really struggles when she doesn't have the ball," Bird
said. "We're going to try to throw their offense off by just keeping the ball
out of her hands as much as possible."