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Saturday, March 31, 2012
You again?! Irish-Huskies, Round 4

By Graham Hays
espnW

DENVER -- If absence makes the heart grow fonder, Sunday night's national semifinal between Connecticut and Notre Dame should show that prolonged proximity has a slightly less endearing effect.

The Big East rivals know each other too well not to respect each other. They also know each other too well to like the other all that much. But like the best rivalries, each owes the other a debt of gratitude for its success. It's fitting that one will have to beat the other one more time to earn a chance to play for the national championship, because they needed each other to get here. Fondness be damned.

For the first time in more than a decade, since the 2001 Final Four in St. Louis, Connecticut and Notre Dame will play each other in a game outside the confines of the states they call home. But thinner air in Denver's mile-high altitude is the only thing that's new for rivals meeting for the fourth time this season (ESPN and ESPN3, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday) and the eighth time in the past 16 months.

Kayla McBride
Kayla McBride's Irish are the rare team that doesn't act like they're playing a favorite when they take the court against Connecticut.

"It's just a great experience to go out there and be able to play UConn," Notre Dame sophomore Kayla McBride said. "They're one of the best programs, and how we go back and forth, there's no other game like UConn and Notre Dame, to me. It's so physical and so intense and there's so much pride involved."

No two teams know each other better than these particular Huskies and Fighting Irish, and not since the heyday of its rivalry with Tennessee has Connecticut confronted a rival on such equal footing. Geno Auriemma's team owns four wins in seven games played between the two since the beginning of last season, including victories in two Big East tournament title games. But Muffet McGraw's team earned one of its wins in that span in the Final Four last season and beat the Huskies in Hartford this past February to sweep the regular-season series and deny its rival even a share of the regular-season title.

It's tough to make a case for any team as underdog in a field for four No. 1 seeds, but Notre Dame is the rare team that doesn't act like it's playing a favorite when it takes the court against Connecticut.

"I think a big part of playing against Connecticut is understanding it's five-on-five, and you're not playing the mystique and the past," Notre Dame associate head coach Jonathan Tsipis said. "Maya Moore's not going to check in the game, even if they have a giant blowup Fathead of her in their band. And I think that's something, when you've played them enough times, that you start to understand that."

Moore was still around when the Fighting Irish began to understand that. Notre Dame's current rise can be traced back to any number of origin points -- not the least of which was local legend Skylar Diggins saying no to Stanford to play for her hometown school -- but the single most important moment in the climb might have been a loss. Notre Dame led Connecticut with less than a minute to play in that game in South Bend last season only to lose, 79-76. The outcome aside, that loss established a young Notre Dame team then ranked outside the top 10 as a legitimate contender.

Natalie Novosel, Bria Hartley
Bria Hartley's Huskies are 4-3 against Natalie Novosel's Irish the past two seasons.

"That game, even though we lost last year at our place in January, I think gave our kids that confidence of we can play with the best team in the country," Tsipis said. "A team that has this unbelievable winning streak and has this four-time All-American and these other great players on their team. It just gave us that confidence, I felt like. It helped us during the Big East season last year. It helped us make that run to the Big East championship game. And I think all through that run last year into the Final Four, when he had to step up and play a No. 1 seed like Tennessee [in a regional final], we weren't in awe because we had played UConn three times at that point."

By the time Notre Dame reached the Final Four, the Fighting Irish no longer feared the Huskies, even if they hadn't beaten them to that point. They felt like they belonged, and while they fell short in the championship game against Texas A&M after beating Connecticut in the semifinal, the team that opened this season ranked No. 2 was ready for the target on its back.

"We were so upset," Notre Dame's Natalie Novosel said of entering the Final Four last season. "We thought we could play with them, and to get blown out a couple of times, really, we were not playing up to our potential. I think it was just a huge culmination of all our passion, and -- I don't even know, hatred for them, I think, a little bit -- to be able to beat them finally."

Notre Dame has always been the team with something to prove in its relationship with Connecticut, even when it won a national championship in 2001 after beating the Huskies in the Final Four. But for the first time in a long time, certainly since Moore arrived on the scene, Connecticut needed a measuring stick of its own this season to reach its full potential. Expected to struggle early without Moore, the Huskies instead beat Stanford and Texas A&M in the span of two weeks early in the season and led Baylor by 11 points in the second half on the Lady Bears' home court before losing, 66-61.

In turn, the lessons the Huskies needed to learn fell on, if not deaf ears, then the slightly skeptical ears of players who kept winning games.

That began to change when the Huskies failed to execute in the closing seconds of a game at Notre Dame in January and lost. It continued in a loss at home against St. John's on senior day, but it reached its nadir in a loss against Notre Dame in Hartford, Connecticut's home away from home, at the end of the regular season. On one of its home courts, Connecticut look outclassed. Only in hitting rock bottom at the hands of a rival did Connecticut find the footing to make a postseason run. And only in playing Notre Dame again in the Big East tournament final could it prove that to itself.

Connecticut won that game, snapping a three-game losing streak against Notre Dame, but more than the result, it looked nothing like the team that played just a week earlier.

"I think it was important for us to get back to us playing the way Connecticut basketball is played," Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey said. "Whether we actually beat Notre Dame, that game was not as important as that we handled everything they threw at us and we fought back. The winning part was not as important -- but it helps. But it was important how we approached it, that we took their best shot and we gave ours back."

There have been times the past two seasons when Auriemma grew a little testy at all the talk of a rivalry between the two schools, suggesting something to the effect that people might want to wait more than a handful of games before anointing an opponent that is still just 7-29 in the all-time series as Connecticut's equal. But after earlier this week calling the Fighting Irish one of the best-coached teams he has seen in the past decade and repeating his praise for McGraw on Saturday, Auriemma's only jabs on the eve of the game came at the expense of the Notre Dame mystique.

"My relationship with the University of Notre Dame, that's a different story," Auriemma mused after complimenting McGraw and her coaching staff. "Goes back to when I was a kid, probably, going to Catholic school all my life. And not being able to get into Notre Dame, that probably pissed me off, too. And it just escalated from there. Because I had a couple of friends that went to school there and played there, and you want to kill yourself every time you came home for vacation."

There are still tactical matters to settle on Sunday night. Connecticut's surge in recent weeks bears a strong correlation with its rebounding dominance, an area it controlled against the Fighting Irish in the Big East tournament. Notre Dame went to the free throw line just 14 times in that game, well below its season average and something it will try to change against a Connecticut team that battled foul trouble against an aggressive Kentucky team in a regional final. And film work aside, plays that each defense should know by heart will still work against them.

But X's and O's aren't what make this rivalry more than Sunday's warm-up act. Familiarity means one team will win not because it knows its opponent better but because it knows itself better.

"It will not come down to somebody had a strategy going in that was so unique and so different that in those eight games in the last [16] months, no one has seen it," Auriemma said. "I just don't know that you can hide that much from each other. We've seen each other way too much, know too much, have way too much insight into each other. So unless they've been saving something for the last 12 months to spring it on us Sunday night, I really don't know what more the game is going to balance on other than a couple of guys playing great games."

Performances seven meetings in the past 16 months prepared them for.