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ND Women’s Basketball: Familiar foes share mutual respect

Cory Bernard | Saturday, April 6, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – As you have probably heard by now, Notre Dame and Connecticut are meeting Sunday for the fourth time this season and the third straight year in the Final Four.

On the court, games between the Irish and Huskies have been fiercely competitive. The second matchup this season went to three overtimes, and the other two tilts were decided by a total of three points. In her teleconference Wednesday, Irish coach Muffet McGraw went so far as to compare the rivalry to that of the Red Sox and Yankees.

But despite their tenacity on the court, the two teams have plenty of mutual respect off it.

“I think we do remain civil.  I think having Philly as a common denominator – I think we both understand each other,” McGraw said Saturday of her relationship with Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, who, like McGraw, had a coaching stint at Saint Joseph’s early in his career.

McGraw’s respect is genuine for a dominant Connecticut program.

“I don’t know that there’s any trademark [to a Connecticut team] except that they’re really talented and very well coached,” she said Wednesday.

Auriemma, who is in his 28th season at the helm of Connecticut, has coached against McGraw for 18 of those seasons. He said McGraw and the Irish typically present one of the season’s toughest challenges.

“They’re as prepared if not better prepared than any team we play all long year,” he said. “And it’s been like that for a long, long time.  And that’s what allows you to be in a position where you are now.”

Auriemma praised McGraw extensively Saturday, saying she understands the individual skills of each of her players and designs her schemes accordingly.

“The other thing that I’ve seen happen is I think Muffet’s really good at taking advantage of what her players are really good at,” Auriemma said. “She puts them in situations where they can be successful.  They’re not running an offense that doesn’t fit their players.  They’re not playing a defense that doesn’t suit their style of play.  She’s really smart.  She keeps her composure on the sidelines.”

Auriemma said he also respects Irish senior guard Skylar Diggins. Auriemma compared the Irish floor general to former Connecticut great Diana Taurasi.

“Well, everyone assumed that because you graduate three starters like they did that your team is going to really suffer the following year,” he said of the Irish. “And in the normal situation, they might have.  But when you’ve got a guard like Skylar Diggins who can miss eight shots in a row and then when it’s time to make the next four she makes the next four.  And I think people maybe underestimated just how much of an impact someone like that can have on your team.

“I know it’s the same thing when we lost our four starters and Diana was the only starter coming back and everybody said now we’ll get them.  You don’t underestimate just how good a great guard can do.”

Just as Auriemma and McGraw have competed against each other for years, so too have Diggins and Huskies senior guard Kelly Farris. Both hail from Indiana and were teammates on numerous all-star teams during their high school careers. Over the last four years, however, Diggins and Farris have played against one another and come to admire the other’s game.

“[Farris] is a good player, one of the hardest workers I’ve ever played with and somebody that never stops,” Diggins said of her Connecticut counterpart. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny.  I think she’s fun to play with because you love when teammates go out and just play as hard as they can every possession.  That was my experience with her.”

Farris echoed Diggins’ praise, saying she enjoys the challenge of facing one of the nation’s premier players.

“It makes it more fun.  You always love playing people you know or grew up playing against and you know their type of personality and how they are on the court,” Farris said. “And [Diggins] is a very competitive, smart player.  So it just makes it that much more fun to play.”

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu