Clash of the Ti­tans

Huskies, Fight­ing Irish meet for 7th time ranked in top two spots

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Sports - dbon­[email protected]­post.com; @DougBon­jour

WOMEN’S BAS­KET­BALL: NO. 2 UCONN AT NO. 1 NOTRE DAME, TO­DAY, 4 P.M. (ESPN)

STORRS — Over their fi­nal three sea­sons to­gether in the Big East, UConn and Notre Dame met 12 times, in­clud­ing in three straight Fi­nal Fours.

When paired on the same court, the two schools pro­duced great drama. Yet, as time wore on, Geno Auriemma felt as if women’s col­lege bas­ket­ball’s best (new) ri­valry had be­come over­done.

“We ended up play­ing them some­times three or four times a year — twice in the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Big East tour­na­ment and then in the Fi­nal Four,” Auriemma, now in his 34th sea­son at UConn, said Wed­nes­day. “It al­most be­came overkill. It was too much. I don’t think they liked it ei­ther. It was just too much. And the Ten­nessee thing, it was once a year, and for a cou­ple years it was twice.”

Although the Huskies and Fight­ing Irish have met less fre­quently since leav­ing the Big East for the AAC and ACC, re­spec­tively, fol­low­ing the 2012-13 sea­son, the ri­valry hasn’t lost its lus­ter. Marked by All-Amer­i­can play­ers, po­lar­iz­ing coaches and, most of all, cham­pi­onship-cal­iber

teams, it’s re­mained at the fore­front of the sport.

Sun­day’s meet­ing at Pur­cell Pav­il­ion (4 p.m.) will be the sev­enth time that UConn and Notre Dame play each other when ranked No. 1 and 2 in the AP poll.

“There’s prob­a­bly more sim­i­lar­i­ties than there are not [be­tween the Notre Dame and Ten­nessee ri­val­ries] in the sense that it’s al­most like they’re go­ing to be re­ally, re­ally good ev­ery year; it’s just a mat­ter of how good. We’re go­ing to be re­ally, re­ally good; it’s just a mat­ter of how good,” said Auriemma, whose team will put its 121-game reg­u­lar sea­son win­ning streak on the line. “And when you play each other in De­cem­ber, it’s more of a ‘We’re go­ing all the way over there and they’re go­ing all the way over here, and we hap­pen to be pass­ing each other on the street cor­ner. Some­body’s go­ing to say some­thing and some­body’s go­ing to say some­thing, then we’re go­ing to slap each other around a lit­tle bit then go home. Then [we’ll say], ‘See you in March.’

“We know they’re out there, and they know we’re out there.”

It’s the script both teams fol­lowed last sea­son, start­ing in De­cem­ber at the XL Cen­ter, where UConn won 80-71. Notre Dame re­turned the fa­vor at the Fi­nal Four in March, knock­ing off the Huskies 91-89 in over­time on a buzzer-beater by Arike Ogun­bowale.

For the sec­ond-ranked Huskies, the wounds from that de­feat have yet to com­pletely heal.

“It’s al­ways a bit­ter taste in your mouth,” UConn for­ward Napheesa Col­lier said. “I think we def­i­nitely tried to let it go be­cause it is a new sea­son, but it’s al­ways in the back of your mind know­ing that if you don’t work as hard as you can, the out­come’s not go­ing to be any dif­fer­ent.”

Over time, Auriemma has learned to deal with losses dif­fer­ently. What’s both­ered him most about the Huskies’ last two trips to the Fi­nal Four weren’t the re­sults them­selves, but rather the de­ci­sions he made dur­ing the games that ul­ti­mately back­fired.

“The ac­tual losses don’t stay with me that much,” he said. “To me, it’s more some moves or some de­ci­sions that I make along the way over the course of the game that I wish I had back. That kind of stays with me for a long, long time. That al­most never goes away.

“You have con­trol over that — the other stuff you don’t.”

The Fight­ing Irish, 7-0 and ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, will head into this, the 49th all-time meet­ing be­tween the teams (UConn leads 36-12), as the fa­vorite. With four starters back, in­clud­ing Ogun­bowale, the Most Out­stand­ing Player of last year’s Fi­nal Four, they’ve yet to be tested.

That leaves the Huskies in a rel­a­tively un­fa­mil­iar po­si­tion in this rich ri­valry.

“I don’t know if you can say we’re the un­der­dog,” UConn guard Katie Lou Sa­muel­son said, “but I think it’s funny that it’s prob­a­bly one of the first times that we have that op­por­tu­nity to kind of prove our­selves and show what we can do rather than just kind of hold­ing onto some­thing.”

Right now, it’s the Fight­ing Irish who are hold­ing onto the weight of a na­tional ti­tle.

“I re­ally don’t feel any dif­fer­ent be­cause we’re al­ways a top team, a top 5 team,” Ogun­bowale said be­fore the sea­son. “Those spots are re­ally in­ter­change­able; they’re all high-level pro­grams. … We just have a big­ger tar­get on our backs now.”

Justin Tafoya / NCAA Pho­tos via Getty Im­ages

Arike Ogun­bowale (24) of the Notre Dame Fight­ing Irish cel­e­brates with team­mates dur­ing the semi­fi­nal game of the NCAA Women’s Fi­nal Four against UConn at Na­tion­wide Arena on March 30 in Colum­bus, Ohio. Notre Dame de­feated UConn 91-89 to ad­vance to the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship. The two teams meet Sun­day in a re­match.

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