April 8, 2014
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Women's basketball came away a winner Sunday night. After a season-long buildup, the NCAA tournament will be decided by the perfect championship game.
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.
The undefeated titans of the sport this season will meet Tuesday night in an historic championship game when No. 1 UConn (39-0) plays Notre Dame (37-0). It will mark the first time in NCAA basketball history that unbeaten teams will play for a title when the former BIG EAST rivals face each other.
"It is pretty amazing," McGraw told The Associated Press after her team beat Maryland 87-61 on Sunday. "So many of the media and fans have been looking at this all season long. It's great that we've made it this far. Both of us remaining undefeated. See who the best team is."
Said UConn guard From Moriah Jefferson: "Now we can finally talk about it. That has been the talk of this whole tournament and I guess it is finally here."
Notre Dame and UConn were rivals for years in the BIG EAST Conference and have played 41 times, including 15 meetings over the previous four seasons. But with Notre Dame joining the ACC and Connecticut playing in the new American Athletic Conference, the two heavyweights did not play during the regular season for the first time since 1995. That helped set up the championship showdown that will put the sport in the spotlight.
"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 could help grow the women's game.
"It looked to me like as the season went on it almost looked like it was inevitable to happen," he said. "It was supposed to happen. Our sport doesn't have enough significant moments. ... To have the spotlight on Tuesday on two teams that one is going to lose for the first time this year, it's pretty remarkable when you think how hard it's to do for one team much less two."
"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 championship 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, who has never lost a championship game, 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 after the Connecticut men's team pulled off a victory Monday night in its title game, this could be the second time in a decade that both UConn programs are national champions.
Notre Dame isn't concerned about UConn's program. The Irish are looking for their first title 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."
The Huskies hold a 30-11 edge overall in the series, but Notre Dame has won three of the four Final Four matchups and 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."
They advanced to Tuesday night's game with a convincing 87-61 victory over Maryland behind 28 points from senior All-American Kayla McBride.
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor.
Even without their star forward, the Irish dominated the Terrapins on the boards, outrebounding them in record fashion. Notre Dame had a 50-21 rebounding advantage, including a 19-4 mark on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game, shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.
They'll need a similar effort against UConn and its imposing front line of Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson.
The Huskies got off to a sluggish start against Stanford before taking control in the second half in a 75-56 victory. They probably can't afford the same thing to happen for a fourth straight game if they hope to win that record title.
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 15 times over the past four 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."
A year ago, it was the Huskies who prevailed 83-65 in the national semifinals en route to winning their eighth national championship. That was Notre Dame's last defeat, and UConn's current 45-game winning streak dates back to a 61-59 home loss to the Irish in last year's BIG EAST championship game (one of three losses for the Huskies against Notre Dame during their championship campaign).
The teams have combined to go 142-2 over the last two seasons against the rest of the country.