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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame-Connecticut rivalry boils hot

| Monday, April 7, 2014

When Irish senior guard Kayla McBride was asked at Monday’s press conference what makes Connecticut-Notre Dame matchups so exciting, she did not bother to sugarcoat her answer.

Other teams are intimidated by the Connecticut jerseys, McBride said, “and they’ve already lost the game.” But Notre Dame’s “swag” allows the Irish (37-0, 16-0 ACC) to compete against a program with eight national championships, she explained.

“We already don’t like each other, so that adds to it too,” McBride added.

Irish freshman forward Taya Reimer  and senior guard Kayla McBride crash the net in hopes of blocking the layup of Terrapins freshman guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. Notre Dame held Maryland to just 67 points Sunday, though the Terps averaged 81.8 points per game this season.Grant Tobin | The Observer

Irish freshman forward Taya Reimer and senior guard Kayla McBride crash the net in hopes of blocking the layup of Terrapins freshman guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. Notre Dame held Maryland to just 67 points Sunday, though the Terps averaged 81.8 points per game this season.

Forget about the first-ever meeting of undefeated teams in the national final ¾ it was the animosity between the two teams described by McBride that became the take-away from Monday’s press conferences in Nashville.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged the relationship between her program and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma’s had turned sour.

“I think we’re past that point,” McGraw replied when a reporter asked how civility could be returned to the rivalry.

Auriemma maintained that hard feelings were the inevitable result of meeting 12 times over the past three seasons.

“Once you start playing each other two, three times, four times a year, it gets pretty intense for lots of reasons,” Auriemma said. “It’s only natural. It will probably die down, now that we’re not in the same conference, now that we probably are only going to play each other once a year.”

Connecticut sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, who was named the Associated Press Player of the Year on Saturday, agreed that familiarity fueled the rivalry.

“I don’t think [the rivalry] was anything when I was in high school,” Stewart said. “I didn’t have any sense of rivalry between college teams. But I think that last year when they beat us three times in a row, that created a sense of rivalry just because they were all so close. The games were all so close and came down to the last minute.”

Auriemma also said he does not think it is unusual for rivals like Notre Dame and Connecticut (39-0, 18-0 AAC) to have contentious relationships.

“This is a function of women’s basketball: Sometimes we act like girls, like we’re supposed to go to dinner every night,” Auriemma said. “We’re supposed to play each other, try to beat each other’s brains in, try to win a national championship and compete like hell, Muffet and Geno, and then we’re supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine? That’s just not going to happen. So stop asking us why it doesn’t happen.”

Although the animosity between the programs can mostly be traced to on-court competition, several comments suggested Saturday’s AP Player of the Year announcement increased the hard feelings between the teams.

“I think that there were two teams in the room and they were both supporting their respective player and coaches,” said Stewart. “And I don’t think that we are very fond of each other. I think everyone knows that. But, at the same time, we still respect each other and know that tomorrow night it’s going to be a huge battle.”

McGraw, who was named the AP Coach of the Year at the same conference, acknowledged she found the event, during which both teams, their supporting staffs and the media were crammed into a small room inside Bridgestone Arena, uncomfortable.

“I think there was definitely tension in the room,” McGraw said. “I think, for us, we wanted Kayla McBride to win the Player of the Year award. So, I think it was a little bit of that. And certainly the rivalry has gone a little away from the civility it was when we were in the league together.”

Auriemma said he did not sense anything amiss during the award ceremony, but he did comment on the negative responses from opponents and their fans when the Huskies and their players are successful.

“Nobody knows what it’s like being us,” Auriemma said. “Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win an award. Everybody gets pissed off … because it’s Connecticut all the time. People are sick of it. It’s just natural.”

Two undefeated teams, a heated rivalry and a chance for the Huskies to win their ninth national championship, eclipsing Tennessee’s eight.

As McBride said, no one could have scripted a more compelling final game for the seniors on the court.

“We have a history,” McBride said. “Especially the last couple of years, we had some great games. It’s definitely exciting. I know we’re excited, two great programs going at it. So I can’t wait.”

Neither can anyone else.

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