The Irish have had UConn's number

Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot/The Day UConn freshman Breanna Stewart blocks a shot from Hartford's Alex Hall during the Dec. 22 game at West Hartford. No. 1 UConn plays No. 5 Notre Dame today at Gampel Pavilion.

Aside from one memorable day in 2001 when Notre Dame became the nation's No. 1 women's basketball team and the its fans captured the game story against UConn with the classic sign "you can't handle the Ruth," a tribute to Ruth Riley UConn-Notre Dame has been more of a "series" than a "rivalry."

Hard to argue that, really, with the Huskies' 28-4 record from Jan. 18, 1996 to March 8, 2011.

But Notre Dame, a participant in the last two national championship games, has won four of five against UConn since, twice at the Final Four. All of which adds some intrigue to today's game at Gampel Pavilion (4 p.m., Ch. 3).

"They were really good when they needed to be and we stunk when we needed to be (good)," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "That leads to one team winning four out of five. They are as good as any team we will play, so if you play poorly or don't make plays when you need to, they are good enough to beat you."

High praise indeed for the No. 5 Irish (11-1), considering the No. 1 Huskies (12-0) dusted the erstwhile No. 1 team in the country (Stanford) a week ago.

"The Stanford game was a bit of an anomaly. That is not what Stanford is," Auriemma said. "I don't think Saturday's game will be 61-35. That I am sure."

Notre Dame has beaten everyone on its schedule but Baylor. And despite losing Brittany Mallory, Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel to graduation, some faces are the same: guard Skylar Diggins, guard Kayla McBride and (much improved) forward Natalie Achonwa.

The Irish also have one of the nation's dynamic freshmen in guard Jewell Loyd, who played USA Basketball with UConn freshman Breanna Stewart and scored 24 points against Baylor.

"I think Loyd may be their best player right now. She is a great individual talent," Auriemma said. "She can take the ball and score from most parts on the floor. She is different than anyone they've had there in a long time. That makes the experience they've lost not seem that drastic. She gets shots."

Notre Dame, all of whose sports except football are headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference, may not be a part of UConn's schedule in future seasons.

"I don't know where it stands in terms of priority," Auriemma said. "But I am sure there will be many discussions with ND about how we move forward. So much will depend on what the Big East looks like, what the eventually timetable is. I don't when that will happen. But I am sure there will be a lot of conversation once the dust all settles."

Meantime, the Huskies can't quite exact revenge for their failures in the last two Final Fours, but they can at least remain the nation's No. 1 team with a win today.

"Any time you get to the Final Four, you are a national championship contender. Plain and simple. If you get there and don't win, well, then you've passed up an opportunity," Auriemma said.

"But I said before last season began that we weren't a national championship team and that we'd have to get lucky. The year before in Indianapolis, we played terribly and the officials helped (Notre Dame). So to win a national championship, you need to be both good and lucky. Just one of them will not be enough. You can be really good and still lose."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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