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ND Women’s Basketball: ND and UConn square off in another Final Four

Cory Bernard | Sunday, April 7, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – The talk is over. The game is finally here.

Notre Dame and Connecticut have dissected their rivalry countless times since the Irish beat Duke on Tuesday to cement a third straight Final Four matchup. Tonight at 8:30 p.m. in the New Orleans Arena, the talking will cease and the Irish and Huskies will decide who plays for the national championship.

“I don’t know what the vibe is on the outside, but I think that the game between us and Connecticut is such a big rivalry game in the country, that, sure … ESPN and everybody’s pretty excited about having that game on TV,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “And it is a sell‑out.  So I think it will be a great game.”

Huskies freshman forward Breanna Stewart, who was named the Bridgeport Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after Connecticut’s victory against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, said nothing can compare to this matchup.

 “I’m really looking forward to this game.  I’m excited because playing Notre Dame in the Final Four for a chance to go to the national championship is unbelievable,” she said. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Despite the inevitable media circus surrounding any Final Four, McGraw said the Irish realize how well they must prepare in order to beat a Connecticut team that knows Notre Dame’s every tendency.

“I think it’s been really focused.  I think it’s a lot of intensity,” McGraw said of her team’s demeanor. “I think there’s a lot of awareness of the scouting report and what we’re trying to do.

Irish junior forward Ariel Braker agreed with McGraw and said the Huskies bring out the best in the Irish.

“We are more focused than ever,” Braker said. “We beat them three times in the season, but that doesn’t mean anything if we can’t get this win [Sunday].”

Although the game is a familiar one, it is also historic. With both schools heading to different conferences next season – Connecticut to the newly formed American Athletic Conference and Notre Dame to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) – this Final Four matchup marks the final time the two teams will play as Big East rivals. McGraw said the success of Big East teams in the tournament demonstrates the conference’s superiority.

“We certainly think the Big East is the best conference in women’s basketball,” she said. “We’ve proven it this year to have two No. 1 seeds, and then Louisville join us in the Final Four is a great accomplishment for the league.  It’s great that we’re doing it in the last year together.  I think it’s a fitting ending for us to go out in a big way and we’re really proud of that.”

Auriemma also lauded the Big East’s accomplishments but said he is uncertain of the future of Connecticut’s rivalry with the Irish.

“In terms of the future, I don’t know what the future holds.  I don’t think anybody else does either,” he said. “The conference that we’re going into is for us a great opportunity.”

Future matchups may remain undecided, but the present objective is certain for both Notre Dame and Connecticut: win this game against your rival and play for the national championship.

“The opportunity is here now,” Irish senior guard Skylar Diggins said. “And, like I said, I’ll keep saying it:  We’re going to leave it all on the court and try our best to get to that position where we can fight for a national championship.”

The Irish and the Huskies square off for the last time this season in the Final Four tonight at 8:30 p.m. in New Orleans.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu