UConn-Notre Dame: Here they go again, resuming rivalry at the Final Four

UConn players warm up on the court during their practice session for the Final Four Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. UConn faces Notre Dame in the second national semi-final Friday night.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn players warm up on the court during their practice session for the Final Four Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. UConn faces Notre Dame in the second national semi-final Friday night. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Columbus, Ohio — The two head coaches were at a Final Four welcome event Wednesday evening when UConn's Geno Auriemma bumped into Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw.

“She said, 'I don't even think of you guys anymore until it's time to play you, whereas before it was a constant,'” Auriemma said of no longer being Big East Conference rivals with the Fighting Irish. “No matter what else was happening, you knew there was a possibility that you were going to play each other four times and it just …

“It does seem easier, I think, on the coaches to not have to constantly be confronted with Notre Dame this, Notre Dame that, Connecticut this, Connecticut that.”

That said, here the two are once more.

Notre Dame this. Connecticut that.

The teams, each seeded first in their respective regions headed into the NCAA tournament, are set to meet in the national semifinals Friday at Nationwide Arena (9:30 p.m., ESPN2).

UConn (36-0) is making its 11th straight Final Four appearance and vying for its 12th national title. Notre Dame (33-3), an underdog to even reach the Final Four after it had four players endure season-ending knee injuries, suffered its only losses this season to fellow Final Four participants UConn and Louisville (twice).

That matchup will be preceded by the first game of the doubleheader between Mississippi State (36-1) and Louisville (36-2) at 7 in what is only the fourth Women's Final Four to feature all four No. 1 seeds. The teams have six losses combined.

UConn and Notre Dame have met 47 times since they first faced off on Jan. 18, 1996, with UConn winning the first 11 games. The Huskies lead the series 36-11.

Notre Dame, however, won seven of eight games in a stretch from the 2011 Final Four in Indianapolis through the 2013 Big East tournament final in Hartford.

The teams have played six times in the NCAA tournament and twice in the national championship game, with UConn winning those meetings in 2014 in Nashville and 2015 in Tampa.

In 2011-13 the Huskies and the Fighting Irish played four times each season, twice during the regular season, once in the Big East tournament and once at the Final Four, creating some memorably terse exchanges between the Hall of Fame two coaches.

UConn now plays in the American Athletic Conference and Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They competed once during the regular season this year, an 80-71 UConn victory on Dec. 3 at the XL Center.

“I think now that we only play them once a year, I think there is some distance to the rivalry,” McGraw said. “I think that it always, of course, will be a rivalry just because they're the best team in the country right now. But I think it's not that intensity that we had when we were in the Big East.”

Added McGraw, smiling: “But that could change tomorrow.”

In the December matchup between the teams, with UConn ranked first in the nation and Notre Dame third, UConn trailed 65-54 after three quarters before outscoring the Irish 26-9 in the fourth quarter.

UConn played the second half without Gabby Williams (migraine) and the fourth quarter without Katie Lou Samuelson (ankle), but still managed the fourth-quarter charge, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd of 15,564.

Samuelson had 18 points and Azura Stevens, who started the second half in place of Williams, finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Napheesa Collier had 15 points and nine rebounds.

Marina Mabrey led Notre Dame with 21 points.

Auriemma called that triumph a “bigger moment” for the Huskies this season.

“The whole second half, but mostly the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame game,” Auriemma said. “Gabby was on the bench the whole second half … we had some guys step up and make some huge plays to beat a really, really good team, a great team, actually. That made me think, 'OK, we have some other things going for us other than just the players that everybody says are the best players.”

Notre Dame is hoping for its “bigger moment” today.

“Playing them before, we've lost once and I think this is our time to win,” Notre Dame's Mabrey said. “We gave that one away. We just had a slight mental lapse and you can't have a mental lapse against them. It hurt when it happened, but it's over now and we had to move on.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale gestures as the Fighting Irish take the floor to practice for the Final Four on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. The Fighting Irish face UConn in the second national semifinal Friday night. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale gestures as the Fighting Irish take the floor to practice for the Final Four on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. The Fighting Irish face UConn in the second national semifinal Friday night. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn players huddle up as they transition from warmups to stretches during their practice session for the Final Four on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. The Huskies play Notre Dame in the second national semifinal Friday night. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
UConn players huddle up as they transition from warmups to stretches during their practice session for the Final Four on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. The Huskies play Notre Dame in the second national semifinal Friday night. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

NCAA TOURNAMENT NATIONAL SEMIFINAL

UConn vs. Notre Dame

Location: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.

Tip: 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Records: Notre Dame 33-3 overall; UConn 36-0.

Last game: Notre Dame beat Oregon 84-74 in the Spokane Regional final Monday; UConn beat South Carolina 94-65 in the Albany Regional final Monday.

Probable starters: Notre Dame, 6-4 Jr. F Jessica Shepard (15.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), 6-2 Sr. F Kathryn Westbeld (7.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), 5-11 Jr. G Marina Mabrey (14.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.0 spg), 6-0 So. G Jackie Young (14.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.8 apg), 5-8 Jr. G Arike Ogunbowale (20.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.5 spg).

UConn, 5-5 So. G Crystal Dangerfield (9.6 ppg, 4.1 apg), 6-0 Sr. G Kia Nurse (13.6 ppg), 6-3 Jr. G/F Katie Lou Samuelson (17.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), 5-11 Sr. F Gabby Williams (11.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.5 spg), 6-1 Jr. G/F Napheesa Collier (15.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg).

Noteworthy: The fact that Notre Dame lost four players for this season with ACL injuries makes it an emotional journey just for the Fighting Irish to be at the Final Four. “Absolutely,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “This has to be the most rewarding. I think you saw the coaching staff after the Oregon game (to win the regional final). I mean, just such joy for us to see that the players get to have this experience.” Notre Dame initially lost All-American Brianna Turner, who suffered her injury during last season's NCAA tournament. That was followed by Mychal Johnson, who went down during the preseason, Mikayla Vaughn and the fourth, Lili Thompson, injured Dec. 31 at Wake Forest. McGraw used six players in Notre Dame's last game against Oregon, with Mabrey, Young and Ogunbowale playing 40 minutes each. “Well, there's not as many decisions to make,” said McGraw, named the Associated Press Coach of the Year on Thursday for her efforts. Still, the Irish are averaging 92.8 points per game during the NCAA tournament and are the only Final Four team to have scored 80 points or more in all four games. The starting five has contributed an average of 84.2 of those points, with Ogunbowale leading the field with a scoring average of 25.0 points per game. … Notre Dame had the best strength of schedule in the nation this season and the most RPI top 50 wins with 17. … The Fighting Irish tied Louisville for the ACC regular-season title at 15-1, but fell to Louisville 74-72 in the ACC tournament final March 4 in Greensboro, N.C. … UConn coach Geno Auriemma is third all-time in Division I women's basketball with 1,027 career victories. McGraw is ninth with 885. Both are members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. … The Final Four features six of the 10 members of the WBCA All-America Team, also announced Thursday. UConn's Samuelson and Williams were honored for the second straight year. Also representing their teams in Columbus are All-Americans Asia Durr of Louisville, Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians of Mississippi State and Ogunbowale of Notre Dame.

— Vickie Fulkerson

 

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