Irish prepare for fourth round of rivalry
Brian Hartnett | Friday, April 5, 2013
On April 3, 2011, the balance of power in Big East women’s basketball began a gradual shift.
On that day, Notre Dame not only advanced to the national championship game for the first time in 10 years, but the Irish also did it by defeating conference foe Connecticut, a team that had beaten Notre Dame in three prior meetings that season.
“I think that game just gave us the belief that we could win,” Irish junior guard Kayla McBride said. “I think, over the years, a lot of people would lose the game before it even started, just looking at their jersey and thinking about the legacy of [former Connecticut guard] Diana Taurasi and the people they’ve had in their program.”
Two years later, No. 2 Notre Dame finds itself in the opposite position, looking to top the No. 3 Huskies for the fourth straight time this season and secure its third consecutive championship game appearance. Call it the latest twist in what has become the sport’s most intriguing rivalry.
“I think when [Connecticut] had the momentum and were beating us so many times in a row, it took a toll on us,” Notre Dame senior guard Skylar Diggins said. “I think maybe we’ve switched the tables – maybe they think about us a little more when we step on the court.”
Since that Final Four matchup in 2011, Notre Dame has dominated the series between the two teams, winning seven of the last eight meetings. The record, however, belies how close the games between the two teams have been – the Irish have won by an average margin of five points per game, and three games have gone into overtime.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her team’s narrow margins of victory in the series make it difficult to give a discernable advantage to either side.
“In the last couple of years – I guess the last two years – we faced them and came out with the win,” McGraw said in a teleconference Wednesday. “And I think we just – we go into the game with a lot of confidence, and we know it’s going to be a battle. But I don’t think there’s an edge really either way.”
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said he agreed with McGraw’s assessment, stating his belief that the Huskies have never been at a mental disadvantage.
“I know we have beaten [Notre Dame] 12 times in a row, and I’m not sure all of that was physical,” Auriemma said in a teleconference Wednesday. “I think some of that was that we had a decided mental advantage when you know you can beat someone.”
Notre Dame built on its 72-63 victory in the 2011 Final Four by defeating the Huskies in both regular-season meetings last year. And although Connecticut knocked off Notre Dame in the Big East championship final, the Irish took the second consecutive Final Four meeting, winning 83-75 in overtime last season.
This season, Notre Dame has won all three matchups with Connecticut. The games, however, have all been won in the final seconds – a one-point victory in Storrs, Conn., in January, a triple-overtime thriller in South Bend on March 4 and a two-point win in the Big East final just eight days later.
“I think we’ve been smart at the end of the game,” McGraw said. “We’ve made a big play at the end of each game to win it.”
Set to play Connecticut for the ninth time in 24 months, McGraw and the Irish are more familiar with the Huskies than any other team in college basketball. For McGraw, that sense of familiarity extends even beyond the series’ recent history, as she’s known Auriemma ever since the two first crossed paths at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in the late 1970s.
Auriemma served as an assistant under former Hawks and current Ohio State coach Jim Foster from 1978-1979. When Auriemma left to coach boys high school basketball, McGraw, a 1977 Saint Joseph’s graduate, took his spot on the bench.
“We’ve never worked together, but its funny how we both got our start with Jim Foster at Saint Joe’s and both have our own programs,” McGraw said. “I think [Auriemma] is an excellent coach. … We’ve really studied their offense and seen some of the things they do well.”
Auriemma said the relationship between him and McGraw is built on competition.
“We play golf together a couple times, and [McGraw] gets all fired up about driving the ball further than me, which is a big deal when your teeing off 50 yards in front of me,” he said. “That goes to show you how competitive Muffet is. She’s incredibly competitive. But I think the competition between us is about Notre Dame versus Connecticut, not necessarily about Muffet versus Geno.”
McGraw agreed and compared the relationship between the two schools to another famous sports rivalry.
“You’ve got the Yankees and the Red Sox, and I think there’s always big games that attract the casual fan to the game,” she said. “And so I think that’s what we’re doing for women’s basketball.
“You know it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a war, so I think that makes it even more fun to watch.”
Contact Brian Hartnett at firstname.lastname@example.org