- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- A trophy waits for the winner of Tuesday's Big East championship game between Notre Dame and Connecticut (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), an encounter that likely marks the final time the teams will play for conference hardware.
But gleaming statuary is only part of what's at stake when the rivalry renews for the 14th time in the past four seasons. There is more on the line than an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame has a national championship to its name. It earned that by way of one of three Final Four wins against Connecticut. It is the top seed in this tournament and a winner of back-to-back Big East regular-season titles, the most recent clinched in a triple-overtime win against its rival a week ago. But the Fighting Irish have never won this tournament, held in Hartford each year since 2004 and often at Connecticut's on-campus arena before that.
Six times the Fighting Irish have reached the tournament final, including each of the past two seasons, and six times they have lost to the Huskies.
Six, as it turns out, is also the number of times Connecticut has come up short against Notre Dame in the past 24 months, a stretch interrupted only by a win in last season's Big East tournament.
The last time Connecticut lost to one school six or more times in the span of seven games, Ronald Reagan was president.
Notre Dame would like to break its conference tournament drought. Connecticut needs to break the hold its rival suddenly has on it.
"I don't care if it was Louisville or Duke that we were losing to every year," Connecticut senior Kelly Faris said. "If you lose that many times to a team, yeah, it's going to get under your skin and you're going to be frustrated with it."
It needs the kind of win this series has seen before.
A little less than an hour after Notre Dame celebrated its second consecutive Big East regular-season title last Monday in South Bend, Fighting Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey and former All-American teammate Ruth Riley made their way out of the arena together. They walked across the same floor that fans stormed a little more than a decade earlier in the aftermath of Notre Dame's win against Connecticut on Jan. 15, 2001. Riley scored 29 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in that game, while Ivey added 14 points and 10 assists -- performances worthy of the program's first victory against the Huskies.
The Fighting Irish were already 16-0 when that game began. They had already defeated power programs like Georgia, North Carolina and Purdue that season. But the win against the team that beat the by an average of almost 18 points per game in the first 11 games of the series changed everything. Two months later, they duplicated the feat in the Final Four and went on to win the national championship.
"Having never beat them at home, for our class and at that time, that was a huge difference maker for us because that made us feel like we stepped up to the next level," Ivey recalled. "Because Connecticut, Tennessee, that was the next level, and we knew that we weren't there yet. So when we beat them, it felt like, for us, it made us more confident. It made us realize we are a really good program."
Let's not get too carried away with the role reversal. In Faris and Caroline Doty (even if the toll of knee injuries has reduced Doty's role considerably), Connecticut still has two of the six players who played significant minutes in the national championship game three years ago, a game the Huskies won to cap a second consecutive perfect season. Geno Auriemma's team is still a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It is still a team with losses this season only to Baylor and Notre Dame. It is still a team beating opponents by an average of 33 points per game.
And for all the frustration expressed by Faris over recent results in the rivalry, her career record against Notre Dame is 7-6. As in more wins than losses.
But for the first time in a long time in any series, the Huskies need a win, not just for the trophy that comes with it, but to show there isn't any more to all those losses than a few too many turnovers or a few too many missed free throws. Teams beat Connecticut from time to time, but they don't get in its head. Seven out of eight would paint a different picture.
Syracuse played too hard in the second half of its game against Connecticut to call Monday's semifinals a mere formality that had to be dispensed with on the way to another round of the sport's best rivalry. But here we are.
The trophy is only part of the story.
"I kind of like the fact that we have a competitive rivalry, and it's a game that people look forward to," Faris said. "And I think it's good for the game."
16dBonnie D. Ford