NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ask Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw whether she hates Connecticut, and you won’t get a denial.
I think that’s a fair assumption, McGraw said.
As if the emotions of playing for a national title aren’t enough, it is the Huskies, of all teams, on the other bench tonight at Bridgestone Arena.
Yes, them again. For the fourth year in a row, the Irish meet their chief rival in the Final Four. Only now, there’s a trophy on the line.
In the first NCAA women’s championship game between undefeated opponents, UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0) sport perfect records and an imperfect relationship.
In an era of social media and fraternization off the court, there is barely any of that between the Huskies and Irish.
In fact, McGraw said Monday that all civility between the former Big East members was lost and probably beyond recovery.
I think we’re past that point, McGraw said. When we were in the same conference, there was a modicum of it. It’s a fierce rivalry. It’s a little like how you would feel about a bully.
In the sport’s hierarchy, UConn is the hunted team, and everyone else a hunter.
The defending national champion Huskies own all the measurables.
They are in the Final Four for the seventh year in a row and 15th time overall. They have had 16 first-team All-Americans under coach Geno Auriemma.
A win tonight would give the Huskies nine championships, breaking a tie with Tennessee for most in the history of women’s college basketball.
That chip on McGraw’s shoulder?
It’s getting bigger, she said. You want to be the one to upset them.
McGraw said she has no relationship with Auriemma and hasn’t tried to form one.
I think there was always some mutual respect when we first started and I like to think that is still there on our part, she said. But I think after beating them and still not feeling any respect for that, we definitely lost something.
The Huskies lead the overall series 30-11, but Notre Dame has won seven of the past nine meetings. The Irish ended UConn’s season in 2011 and 2012.
A funny thing happens to people when they start to beat us, Auriemma said. I haven’t changed in 25 years. We think we’re the best basketball program in America. We don’t flaunt it.
Auriemma said he couldn’t care less about McGraw’s comments regarding civility.
That stuff is such nonsense, he said. This is a function of women’s basketball. Sometimes we act like girls, like we’re supposed to beat each other’s brains in and then get together, Muffet and Geno, and have a bottle of wine. Not happening.
One coach will drown sorrows this evening, and the other will celebrate history. There have been seven unbeaten Division I women’s basketball teams.
The Irish’s only title came in 2001. They went 34-2 that year. After falling in the championship game in 2011 and 2012 and to UConn in last year’s semifinals, Notre Dame is hungry to break through.
The Irish are at a disadvantage without Natalie Achonwa, but McGraw said the team has turned Achonwa’s injury into a rallying point, dedicating their quest to her.
And whatever contempt exists between the two sides, Notre Dame embraces the tussle.
A lot of people play UConn, see their jerseys and have already lost the game, senior Kayla McBride said. We’re not like that. We have a certain swagger. I dislike them. We get up for the intensity.