Undefeated UConn, Notre Dame in title game matchup to love and hate
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There was little harmony in Music City on Monday afternoon. At least not in the Notre Dame locker room, where Irish coach Muffet McGraw did not mince words when she was asked about her relationship with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.
"We don't have a relationship," said McGraw, bluntly.
Her salvo came about 75 minutes following a press conference in which McGraw said the Notre Dame-UConn rivalry had gone "a little away from the civility" it had experienced when the two programs competed against each other in the Big East.
"When we were in the same conference I think there was af modicum of it [civility] but after beating them and not feeling any respect from that, we lost something," McGraw said. "I think there was always some mutual respect when we first started and I'd like to think that is still there on our part."
McGraw was then asked if "hate" was an accurate word to describe the current status between the programs.
"I think that is a fair assumption," she said.
The only thing missing was the mic drop. McGraw's comments provided more rocket fuel for a blockbuster Tuesday night (ESPN, 8:30 p.m ET) title bout between UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0), the first time in NCAA Women's Basketball Championship (Divisions I, II and III) history that two undefeated teams have met in the final. These are clearly the two best programs in women's basketball, but it's a different plot than the usual UConn final given that Notre Dame has been the one team over the past three years that does not quiver at the sight of the Huskies' blue and white jerseys. The schools have played 12 games since the start of 2010-11 season, with the Irish winning seven of the last nine after Connecticut had previously dominated the series.
"We've got two really, really good teams," said Auriemma. "Forget the other stuff. The other stuff is such nonsense. I could sit here and list 10,000 coaches that don't interact with each other whose rivalries are intense. This is a function of women's basketball. Sometimes we act like girls, like we're supposed to go to dinner every night. 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, and then Muffet and Geno are 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."
The UConn coach was clearly chafed by McGraw's comments.
"There is a lot of truth to familiarity breeding contempt," he said. "Absolutely, that is all that is. We have never said anything other than respectable things for them. I am not really crazy about it [trash-talking]. It's not the point of the game. People that know me know we don't walk around disrespecting opponents, flaunting who we are, what we are, bragging about ourselves. That is so far from who we are. Because we know how hard it is to do what we do and we what the perception is from the outside. It ain't easy being us.
"I think when you play as often as we have in a short period of time, I think a lot of things happen that wouldn't happen if you didn't play that often," he continued. "Nobody knows what it's like being us. Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win an award, everybody gets pissed off. Worst off, they act pissed off because our guys won an award because it's Connecticut all the time, all Connecticut all the time. People are sick of it. It's just natural. We live with it 365 days a year. So, if are going to come in and try to live in that air then you need to deal with it."
Auriemma, who has a PhD in sarcasm, laughed when he was asked if there was a part of him that enjoyed McGraw's comments. "Who would have ever thought that I would take the high road?" he said.
The truth is McGraw and Auriemma have a ton of similarities. They both run offenses that float freely and rely on intelligent players making smart cuts and passes. They both hold players accountable no matter the time and score. They both preach and take pride in defense. They both have roots in Philadelphia. (They are also both great with the press, which is appreciated here.) McGraw said that there was nothing that triggered her statements on Monday, though she said (correctly) that Auriemma likes to get under the skin of opposing coaches. If you are looking for a possible catalyst, McGraw asserted on ESPN's NCAA Selection Show that UConn was responsible for the teams not playing this year, prompting Auriemma to respond that "it's not nice to fib during Lent." This was the first year since 1996 that Connecticut, now playing in the American Athletic Conference, and Notre Dame, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, did not meet in the regular season.
While the tension between the coaches was at DEFCON 1 on Monday, the players are friendly off the court and Irish All-America guard Kayla McBride spent Monday praising Auriemma, who coached her at a USA Basketball camp this summer. (Auriemma has been similarly generous in the past when describing McBride's game, which is worthy of such praise.) Said McBride: "I like most of their players and have respect for them but as a player on Notre Dame, I dislike them."
So let's get to the matchup on the court: Though the teams did not meet this season, both coaching staffs are very familiar with each team's offensive and defensive sets. Notre Dame is a lethal scoring team behind the aggressive play of McBride and fellow All-America guard Jewell Loyd (a team-high 18.7 points), both of whom can score from multiple spots on the floor. Starting center Natalie Achonwa, the team's third-leading scorer and top rebounder, suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Baylor in the Elite Eight so Notre Dame must get impactful minutes from 6-foot-3 freshman forward Taya Reimer. The Irish are collectively small compared to UConn so they'll have to rebound as a unit. Freshman point guard Lindsay Allen has a 5.8 assist-to-turnover ratio in the NCAA tournament, but she has never faced a defense that plays as hard as Connecticut's does on every possession. Notre Dame has a depth advantage with bench forwards such as junior Markisha Wright, who had nine rebounds against Stanford.
The conventional wisdom heading into the season was that the Irish would miss departing All-America point guard Skylar Diggins, but her absence forced other players to assume added responsibility. "I think we were great with Sky and she did so much for us but she almost did too much," said McBride, who was brilliant in the semifinal win over Maryland with 28 points. "She had to bring the ball up, she had to make sure where it needed to go, and she had to score. Now everyone knows their role. It gave people an opportunity to step up."
UConn, the defending champions, were expected to be in Nashville. The Huskies had four starters returning including Breanna Stewart, who has averaged 19.4 points per game this year en route to winning the AP Player of the Year award, All-America senior center Stefanie Dolson (9.1 rebounds), All-America senior guard Bria Hartley (16.3 points) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the nation's best three-point shooter. The Huskies' fifth starter is sophomore point guard Moriah Jefferson, who is a finalist for the Nancy Libermann Award as the nation's top player at that position. Connecticut's lone weakness is depth. It has a six-player rotation, which makes sixth woman Kiah Stokes, a 6-foot-3 junior center, especially vital. Auriemma has not always trusted Stokes given her inconsistent form in practice but she played the best game of her college career against Stanford in the semifinals with nine points in 22 minutes.
McGraw, repeating a refrain of every coach that faces UConn, talked about the matchup problems the 6-foot-4 Stewart presents. After being named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player as a freshman, Stewart has gotten stronger this season and has worked on her balance driving to the basket. Last year when she put the ball on the floor, she was pushed out of the lane. She is also much better at finishing around the rim as a sophomore. "They have a great transition game," said McGraw, who coached Notre Dame to a title in 2001. "They get down the floor in a hurry so transition defense will be a big factor."
Less of a factor will be eight-time champion UConn's ability to intimidate the Irish. They beat the Huskies three times last season, though they lost the game that mattered -- an 83-65 UConn win in the national semifinals. Achonwa said both McGraw and Diggins imparted on the roster a swag against all comers, and Notre Dame's coach admits she is carrying a chip on her shoulder in Nashville. "Yes, it's getting a little big," McGraw said, smiling and looking at her right shoulder. "But you have to win a championship to have people talking about you that way. That's what we have to do."
The only sure winner will be ESPN, which should get great viewership numbers given the historic nature of the matchup. If you are looking for a pick from this space, UConn's frontcourt size and an overdue breakout game from Stewart will be the difference in what shapes up as a terrific game.
"There needs to be more games like Connecticut and Notre Dame where the intensity level is that high, where you have so many good players on the floor playing at a real high level," said Auriemma, who is 8-0 in championship games. "Whether Connecticut wins or Notre Dame wins, women's basketball come Wednesday morning will be better off for what happens than if it had never happened."