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UConn-Notre Dame: New faces but same old rivalry

Women’s basketball fans that have followed the fierce rivalry between UConn and Notre Dame the past decade may have a question when the teams meet on Sunday in the Jimmy V Classic at sold-out Gampel Pavilion (4 p.m., ESPN).

When does the varsity game start?

The Huskies enter their showdown with the Irish unbeaten at 7-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country. There’s nothing unusual there. But no one is confusing these Huskies — yet, anyway — with any of their powerhouses of the past 25 years.

The Irish (5-5), meanwhile, are in full reload mode. Between graduation, transfer and injury, none of the eight players who saw action for them in their win over UConn in the NCAA Final Four semifinals last April in Tampa will play for them Sunday.

But it is UConn and Notre Dame.

“These are two programs that have a long history together,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s not the same Notre Dame team and not the same Connecticut team of the last few years. Each year in this rivalry brings a new story. We’re two teams trying to find our rhythm going forward. It should be great for our fans and the coaching staffs and the players.

“Then after it’s done we have final exams, so it’s just another game.”

No one needs to remind the Huskies, particularly their upperclassman, that UConn beat Notre Dame in the regular season but saw its season end at the hands of the Irish in the national semifinals each of the last two seasons.

It’s still a chance to build on what it has done over the first month and pick up a win against a name opponent and its archrival.

“We’re looking forward to it,” UConn forward Megan Walker said. “It’s at home with a big crowd. We need to get ready and go to work.”

Walker continued her strong start Thursday night as she had a season-high 29 points in a 92-78 road win over Seton Hall. The junior leads the American Athletic Conference in scoring (21.6) and is eighth in rebounds (8.3).

But there’s more work to do.

“She had three offensive rebounds (Thursday). She had a total of two in the previous six games,” Auriemma said.

“You look at it and you think, ‘This is what could be.’ It had to happen at some point so that they could see it could happen. I said to Megan, ‘That’s how you score a lot of points. It’s not as just a jump shooter but as a jump shooter, as a driver, as a rebounder, at the free-throw line. That’s how you score a lot of points.’ She’s playing like an All-American. Think what our record would be if she hadn’t played like she played.”

Freshman Aubrey Griffin came off the bench for season highs of 25 points and 12 rebounds against the Pirates. Senior Molly Bent, making her second straight start in place of injured Crystal Dangerfield, added a career high 10 points. Auriemma said Thursday night he expected Dangerfield to play Sunday.

The Huskies trailed by nine after one quarter and then outscored Seton Hall by 23 the rest of the way.

“We were proud that we could take that hit,” Bent said. “They have a good team and we’re on the road and there was a great crowd in the gym. It wasn’t easy but we stuck together.”

Notre Dame is trying to get it together.

The Irish became the first to have their starting five selected in the top 20 picks of the WNBA Draft last April. Then they became short-handed this season when they lost Mikayla Vaughn (knee) and Abby Prohaska (blood clots).

In 2002 UConn had four of the top six selections in the WNBA Draft, but came back and won the national championship the next year. Of course, those Huskies had Diana Taurasi and these Irish don’t.

When Notre Dame fell to Tennessee and Michigan State at home last month, it ended a run of 339 games — the second-longest streak in the nation to UConn — without back-to-back losses. The next week the Irish fell out of the Associated Press for the first time since the end of the 2006-07 season, stopping a streak of 234 consecutive weeks being ranked. It was the third longest active streak behind UConn and Baylor.

Coach Muffet McGraw’s rotation has been at six and their top scorers are sophomore Katlyn Gilbert and freshmen Samantha Brunelle and Anaya Peoples.

Notre Dame is coming off a 75-67 home loss to Minnesota on Wednesday.

“We’ll still prepare for the same things we usually do when we play them,” Auriemma said. “They still have a bunch of high school All-Americans on their team, last time I checked. They’re good offensive players. Since they’re playing us, I anticipate that they’ll play well.”

It wouldn’t be Notre Dame-UConn if they didn’t.

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