Clash of the Titans
Huskies, Fighting Irish meet for 7th time ranked in top two spots
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.”
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.