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Masoud: Connecticut-Notre Dame rivalry one of sport’s best (Mar. 2)

Chris Masoud | Thursday, March 1, 2012

North Carolina-Duke has its moments every season, Kentucky-Louisville is back on track and even Kansas-Missouri generates additional hype on gameday. Each rivalry has its own special history, its own place in college basketball, thanks to a series of unforgettable matchups, exciting (devastating) upsets and healthy (painful) win streaks.

So, add Notre Dame-UConn to the list.

What makes a rivalry great? Legendary coaches — check. Along with Tennessee’s Pat Summit, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma is the face of women’s basketball and the driving force behind seven national championships. While Irish coach Muffet McGraw only has one title so far, she joined Auriemma as a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 and has more than 650 wins to her name.

Legendary players — check. The advantage certainly favors Connecticut here, as WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Maya Moore each made her mark in UConn jerseys. But Ruth Riley led Notre Dame to its only national title, and South Bend native junior Skylar Diggins would be well on her way to Player of the Year honors in 2012 if not for Baylor’s Brittney Griner.

Signature moments — check. Notre Dame’s upset of the Huskies in the 2011 NCAA tournament semifinals stands out above the rest. Diggins and her 28 points stole the show, propelling the Irish into the title game, ending Moore’s collegiate career and snapping a 12-game Connecticut win streak over Notre Dame.

But well before that, the two programs made history when ESPN College GameDay covered its first women’s basketball game in January 2010, a matchup between Notre Dame and Connecticut. While the Huskies blew out the Irish, the two programs advanced the sport further into the national spotlight.

Balanced record — no check … yet.

Since January 1996 the two programs have met 35 times, and Connecticut holds a commanding 28-7 series lead. In fact, the Huskies won the first 11 matchups until the 2000-01 Notre Dame team broke that streak en route to winning a national championship.

From 2001 to 2005 the rivalry played out much more evenly, as Notre Dame won four of its next 10 matchups against Connecticut before quickly reverting back in the Huskies’ favor. From 2006 to 2011, UConn rattled off 12 straight wins in the Big East regular season and conference tournament.

Finally, momentum has shifted towards Notre Dame. Dating back to the 2011 Final Four victory, McGraw’s squad has beaten Connecticut in three consecutive contests, the first team to accomplish the feat since North Carolina did from 2004-07. More importantly, Notre Dame’s poise has carried it to two conference victories this season, an overtime victory at home and a road win in a notoriously hostile arena. For a team with only marginally better talent than the Huskies, these wins bode well for an almost certain rematch in the Big East championships title game and a potential rematch in the Final Four.

And what if Notre Dame extends its win streak to five, which would include two victories in the NCAA tournament, a victory that secured a Big East regular season title outright and a victory with the conference tournament title on the line? While Notre Dame would still trail Connecticut by a significant margin in the all-time series, quality victories with titles and championships on the line certainly mean more than regular season wins.

Earning a Big East regular season and conference tournament title over Connecticut in the same season would send a clear message: Notre Dame is committed to winning at the highest level. Consistently.

The Irish certainly lost their grip as contenders following the program’s first national title in 2001, failing to return to the title game for a full decade. Some programs would be content with a return to the Final Four last season. But this year’s squad has its sights set on a national title, the talent to beat opponents it should beat handily and the character to grind out the tough wins.

Like all good rivalries, win streaks alternate from team to team, and Connecticut will surely rebound sooner than later. But for the first time, the Huskies are looking up from the wrong end of a rivalry approaching parity.


Contact Chris Masoud at cmasoud@nd.edu