Leading into tonight’s championship game between Notre Dame and Connecticut (8:30 EST, ESPN), you should know that women’s basketball isn’t about kittens, orange slices and post-game handshakes. There are rivals and there is hatred. There are elbows and shoves and trash talk.
When you think of classic sports rivalries, you probably think of Red Sox vs. Yankees, Bears vs. Packers, Lakers vs. Celtics, Florida vs. Georgia Southern.
What you may not realize because your head is focused on field turf and jumbotrons, is that the rivalry between Notre Dame and Connecticut in women’s basketball is about as vitriolic as you’ll find in sports these days.
For two decades, UConn had dominated the former Big East. Conference champions nineteen times; fifteen Final Four appearances; Eight national championships. Geno Auriemma has had one of the greatest runs as a single school’s head coach in any sport; up there with Knute Rockne and John Wooden.
He’s also about as trustworthy as a central Texas used car dealer.
If you paid even a modicum of attention in the nineties, you probably know about UConn and Tennessee. Tennessee got the best of UConn for the most part, but Tennessee’s head coach Pat Summit’s disdain for Auriemma grew to the point that she refused to schedule regular season games against the Huskies. On the court rivalries are one thing, but the Auriemma’s antics as a recruiter (going so far as to have reportedly told girls that UConn had no lesbians on the team like Tennessee) are above and beyond healthy competition.
Enter Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame.
As McGraw slowly built up one of the top programs in the nation, the rivalry with Connecticut also grew. Notre Dame began peaking in 2000 with their national championship, but never seemed to quite get over their relationship with big sister UConn until the last few seasons. Despite winning three times during the 2010-11 season, Notre Dame upset Connecticut’s chances at a three-peat with a victory over the Huskies in the Final Four before losing to Texas A&M in the finals.
From there, the Fighting Irish kept winning. McGraw’s squad has won seven of the last ten meetings with the Huskies, including two Final Four victories and made 2013 the first time Connecticut hadn’t won the Big East tournament since 2005.
After 2013, Notre Dame moved on to join the ACC and Connecticut was left behind in newly formed AAC. With no regular season games scheduled between the two, both teams went on to produce undefeated teams. They top the nation in almost all stat categories and dominated almost every single game they played. As the season progressed, it seemed destiny that the two would finally meet in the NCAA Finals.
So how do the coaches feel about each other and their respective teams? Insert Monday’s presser.
According to McGraw, the terms “hate” and “lack of civility” would best be used to describe the rivalry. She claims that what little civility existed between the teams while in the same conference had disappeared this last year, and even seemed to take a shot at ESPN by continuing, “But I think after beating them and still not feeling any respect for that, we definitely lost something.”
It’s not a secret that ESPN plays up the home team Huskies to sickening degrees. Just watch any Notre Dame game and count the amount of times UConn, its coach or its players are mentioned. Now do the same thing for a Huskies game and count Notre Dame references. Not even close.
And that’s okay. In fact, it’s probably a good thing. Why? Because despite winning all 37 games it has played this season, it seems like they’re still a huge underdog. That’s great for the locker room. It keeps the women hungry. It makes them mad. It’s what drives Jewell Loyd to play the most ferocious defense this side of Dennis Rodman. It’s what leads a team to out-rebound a Final Four opponent 50-21.
It wasn’t just the coaches going back and forth yesterday, it was also the players. All-Americans Kayla McBride and Brianna Stewart both admitted that the teams simply don’t like each other. No more. No less. It’s a rivalry, and in rivalries the slightest bit of bulletin board material can be the difference between a game-winning offensive rebound put back and watching the other team get sprinkled in confetti.
But today isn’t about talking. It isn’t about the Big East and it isn’t about rivalries.
It’s about who gets to cut down the nets; who gets their one shining moment; who gets the offensive rebounds and loose balls.
It’s about making sure we get to see a Jewelly-oop late in the second half to go up by 12 points while Stephanie Dolson is sitting on the bench because the referees FINALLY started calling her for moving screens and errant elbows.
It’s about making sure that our head coach is STILL the champion of fashion on the court.
It’s about ruining the early-week study plans of RAs in Storrs, Connecticut.
It’s about ND Family.