April 7, 2015
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The women’s basketball championship game will have a familiar feel to it with UConn and Notre Dame – the nation’s winningest programs since 2009 – playing for a title for the second straight year.
Unlike last season’s game when much of the conversation building up to the matchup of undefeated teams was about the frosty relationship between Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw, this year there is much friendlier attitude between the coaches and their teams, despite the rivals once again meeting on the game’s biggest stage.
The Huskies have won a nation-best 220 games over the past six seasons. Notre Dame is second with 203.
A win for the Huskies on Tuesday night would be a third straight title for UConn and 10th overall for Auriemma. That would tie him with UCLA men’s coach John Wooden for the most all-time in college basketball.
Auriemma has a perfect record with the title on the line, winning all nine of UConn’s trips to the national championship.
”This isn’t something that’s going to last forever,” he said. ”Not going to win every single championship game that we’re in. If we’re in some more, but up to this point, it’s something that’s really hard to explain. And I’m just incredibly grateful.”
UConn junior Breanna Stewart has been the key two the last two titles.
The two-time AP Player of the Year saves her best games for the brightest lights. She has won Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four as a freshman and sophomore and had another great game in the semifinal win over Maryland.
She stated when she came to UConn that her goal was to win four championships. She’s one victory away from being three-quarters of the way there. Only the Huskies from 2002-04 and Tennessee from 1996-98 have won three straight titles.
UConn beat Tennessee in 2003 and 2004 which was the only other time in the history of the NCAA Tournament that there was a repeat title game.
McGraw has her team back in the title game for the fourth time in five seasons. Unlike Auriemma, she’s only won one title with the Irish, back in 2001.
”I think being here is a great achievement for us,” McGraw said. ”I think probably because we did win one that maybe I don’t feel that sort of pressure (to win another). But I want to win this for this team. I want to win for this team so that they can have that feeling looking up in the rafters and seeing another banner.”
The Irish lost three starters from last year’s team that entered the championship game unbeaten, including a pair of All-Americans selected in the first round of the WNBA draft. Starting two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman, they weren’t expected to make it back to the title game when the season began.
”I think when we started the season and looked at what we lost last year and were wondering where all the offense is going to come from, to say that we’ve come a long way, I think it’s a little bit of an understatement,” McGraw said. ”I’m just proud of where we’ve gotten to and how this team has just been resilient and continued to pursue their goals this year.”
And despite Notre Dame’s stretch of success that includes five consecutive trips to the Final Four, the coach said she didn’t envision such a young team having much of a chance to get back to this stage after undergoing so much change.
”I remember thinking that and telling the team we lost 40 percent of our offense, 40 percent of our rebounds and 40 percent of our assists,” McGraw said, recalling the first day of practice last spring. ”We really were a very different team, very young team. … We didn’t know who the leader was going to be.”
Notre Dame needed a putback by unlikely star Madison Cable with 16 seconds left and a defensive stand on the other to even advance to the championship game and face UConn.
Unlike last season when these two women’s basketball powerhouses didn’t play until the championship game which UConn won by 21 points, they met in December at Notre Dame. The Huskies trailed by 10 in the first half but came away with an 18-point victory in that game. It was the Huskies’ narrowest margin of victory this season until South Florida lost to them by 14 in last month’s American Athletic Conference Tournament final.
”Tuesday night is not going to be any fun, believe me,” Auriemma said. ”I’m glad we’re playing in that game, but it’s not going to be any fun. They’re really hard to play against.”
In the regular-season meeting, Notre Dame was missing freshman Brianna Turner, who was nursing a shoulder injury. She’s made a major impact since missing those three games.
”She’s our leading rebounder and one of our top three scorers,” McGraw said. ”So I think she makes a difference in our team at the defensive end, with her rebounding her presence of shot blocking and the way she can run the floor. I think that we are a much better team with her on the floor.”
Auriemma isn’t surprised to be facing the Irish for the title again.
”I think at Notre Dame, and at Connecticut, we don’t try to have great teams. … Their program now kind of sustains great teams year in and year out,” the UConn coach said. ”They’re not dependent as much as some other schools maybe on graduation, recruiting. There’s always enough players already in those programs that when somebody graduates they just throw somebody in that spot.”
MS. OUTSTANDING: Breanna Stewart is already one of five players to earn Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors twice in her career. UConn’s star junior would join UCLA men’s great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar if she wins another. He’s the only player in college basketball history to earn the award three times. ”She’s as good as anyone I’ve ever coached when the big moments come,” Auriemma said.
IRISH EYES ARE SMILING: While UConn is looking for its 10th championship, Notre Dame is trying for its second. The Irish won their lone title in 2001. They’ve been to the championship game in four of the past five seasons now, but fell short each time – twice losing to undefeated teams (Baylor in 2012 and UConn in 2014).
NINE FOR NINE: Auriemma has a perfect record with the title on the line, winning all nine of UConn’s trips to the national championship. ”This isn’t something that’s going to last forever,” he said. ”Not going to win every single championship game that we’re in. If we’re in some more, but up to this point, it’s something that’s really hard to explain. And I’m just incredibly grateful.”
THREE-PEAT: With a victory by UConn, it would be the third time in NCAA history that a team won three straight titles. Tennessee did it from 1996-98 and the Huskies from 2002-04. ”I know when we’re in the moment we try not to think about that, just because you just want to focus on the moment,” UConn redshirt sophomore Morgan Tuck said. ”But when you do sit back and think about it you want to be part of history and you want your mark on the UConn program. And I think being a part of a group that’s potentially going to win three in a row that’s just something really special.”
STELLAR FRESHMAN: Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner had a shoulder injury and missed the game between the schools in early December, a contest UConn won by 18 points. She’s made a major impact for the Irish since returning. ”She’s our leading rebounder and one of our top three scorers,” coach Muffet McGraw said. ”So I think she makes a difference in our team at the defensive end, with her rebounding, her presence of shot blocking and the way she can run the floor. I think that we are a much better team with her on the floor.”
MIRROR, MIRROR: Auriemma believes the Irish have won so many games against the Huskies over the past few seasons because the programs are so similar. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, nine of the 14 games have been decided by single digits, including three that have gone to overtime. Notre Dame has won seven of the last 11 meetings for these old BIG EAST foes. ”They’re a lot like us. And I think that’s why they have had success against us. They have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and as a program,” he said. ”So we give them problems like other teams in the country don’t and they give us problems like other teams in the country don’t.”
CROWN JEWELL: Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd has been the Irish’s star all season long. She’s already one of the top scorers in school history and one of the best players in the country. ”I watch her play and I think there’s something about her that’s different than any other woman playing college basketball,” Auriemma said. ”It’s just something, she has just something. Not very many players playing men’s or women’s basketball have that. … She knows what she can do, when she touches the ball she knows she can do anything with it. And she does it in a way that’s very classy. I just admire everything about her.”