Perfect approach for UConn, ND
After winning the ACC tournament, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw dodged discussion of her Irish and Connecticut potentially meeting in the women's Final Four again.
McGraw drolly noted that she didn't think the selection committee would have Notre Dame and UConn meeting in the first round; thus, she wasn't going to focus on the Huskies.
Of course, the two undefeated teams in this year's NCAA women's tournament are in opposite halves of the bracket, with the potential for an epic national championship game April 8 in Nashville, Tenn.
There have been seven undefeated champions in women's basketball in the NCAA era, which began in the 1981-82 season. Four of them were UConn teams: 1995, 2002, 2009 and 2010. The others were Texas (1986), Tennessee (1998) and Baylor (2012).
Interestingly enough, though, the only other time there were two unbeaten teams entering NCAA women's tournament play, they actually did meet in the opening round.
Retroactively, the NCAA should apologize to the 1998 Liberty squad, a 28-0 team that deserved better than being first-round fodder for 33-0 Tennessee in Knoxville. It seemed "cute" at the time to match up an undefeated David and an undefeated Goliath.
But with UConn at 34-0 and Notre Dame at 32-0, we have two Goliaths ... although one with considerably more national championships than the other. The Huskies, who've been ranked No. 1 all this season, won their eighth NCAA crown last year in New Orleans, tying them with Tennessee for the most all time. This despite UConn being 1-3 last season against Notre Dame. The Huskies won the 2013 meeting between the two that mattered most: the national semifinal. UConn has been to the women's Final Four 14 times and is 8-0 in championship-game appearances.
"It does put pressure on you -- but I think a good kind of pressure," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of how his teams each season deal with the program's prodigious history. "[The past players] all follow it, and connect with the players today, who know what's been done before them."
Notre Dame has one NCAA title -- 2001 -- in five trips to the Final Four. Those include the past three seasons, in which the Irish have done just about everything except win the NCAA title.
In 2011, they became the first program to beat both Tennessee and UConn in the same NCAA tournament, then fell to Texas A&M in the championship game. In 2012, Notre Dame beat UConn for a second year in a row in the national semifinals but lost the title game to Baylor. Last year, the Irish defeated the Huskies twice in the regular season and again in the Big East tournament final. Then everything clicked for UConn super freshman Breanna Stewart -- a 6-foot-4 study in versatility -- in the NCAA tournament, and she and the Huskies defeated the Irish at the Final Four.
That ended point guard Skylar Diggins' Notre Dame career, but not the Irish's good fortune. Even after that game, sad as McGraw was to part with Diggins -- the program's all-time scoring leader with 2,357 points -- McGraw seemed very bullish on the future. And for good reason. Led by guards Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame transitioned to the ACC by dominating the league. Meanwhile, UConn became the giant of the new American Athletic Conference, which the Huskies steamrolled through behind Stewart, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson.
Thus, two unbeaten seasons. UConn and Notre Dame had three common opponents -- Duke, Maryland and Penn State -- but didn't face each other for the first time since the 1995-96 season, when the Irish joined the Big East.
"They both have some of the best guards in the country," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who is used to going against UConn and Notre Dame. "Guard play is what wins you basketball games.
"And Stewart is really a guard; she's not a typical post player. That's what makes her so difficult. If she was 6-4 and just played in the post, we could figure out how to guard her. But she's stepping out hitting 3s and running the court."
Walz's Cardinals pulled the upset of the NCAA tournament last year when they stunned Baylor in the Sweet 16. Pretty much nobody saw that coming, as the Lady Bears were defending champions.
What would it take to have a similar upset of UConn or Notre Dame in this tournament? For one thing, a foe would need to have a spectacular game; Louisville executed a very physical defensive plan and hit an astonishing 16 3-pointers -- and needed every one of them in the one-point victory over Baylor.
Baylor got back on its heels from the start in that game and was forced to play catch-up throughout. It's easier to see now that the Lady Bears -- however unintentionally -- might have overlooked Louisville.
That's a flaw you're unlikely to see in UConn or Notre Dame, two programs adept at taking care of business. The Huskies, in particular, have set the standard for that in the women's game. Consider that since their breakthrough championship in 1995, they have lost before the regional final just twice, in 1999 and 2005.
Furthermore, despite how great UConn has been for so long, the Huskies have an amazing ability to stay grounded. They have consistently played very well even against their least-talented opponents. They don't play "down" to their foes' level. They compete against a standard they set for themselves.
Auriemma has been able to extract that level of focus on the "now" -- something every coach of every sport in the world constantly seeks -- from different personalities on UConn teams for decades.
"It is getting harder, as the years go on, because people are in an incredible hurry to get to the next thing," Auriemma said of his players staying engaged in the task at hand. "And whatever happens next is way better than what just happened. It's crazy, right?
"So we do spend a lot of time talking about being in the moment and about how today, this game, is the most important game for us."
Notre Dame has conducted itself similarly to UConn in that regard, especially over the past few seasons. The Irish had a more difficult conference to navigate this season with the move to the ACC, but that actually seemed to energize them.
"It's been fun, refreshing," McGraw said. "I've had a lot of anxiety, I think, in every game. Because we went into games in new places, not knowing, 'Is this going to be the gym where we don't play well?' Because in the Big East, we never played well at South Florida, for instance.
"We had to figure out, 'What will the crowd be like? What will the hotel be like? Where do we eat?' There was so much unknown, I think it helped us prepare more. I think we worked even a little harder."
So UConn and Notre Dame seem very ready to continue their respective runs of perfection. Still, could we see an upset before an all-unbeaten final?
Historically, there have been five teams that entered NCAA tournament play undefeated but did not win the championship. We earlier mentioned No. 16 seed Liberty in 1998, which lost in the first round to eventual undefeated NCAA champion Tennessee. And Vermont did it twice -- 29-0 in 1992 and 28-0 in 1993 -- losing in the first round both years.
The other two times, though, the teams were truly championship contenders. In 1990, Louisiana Tech entered the tournament 29-0 and a No. 1 seed. The Lady Techsters fell to Auburn (a No. 2 seed) in the national semifinals; Stanford (another 1-seed) then beat Auburn for the NCAA title.
Then in 1997, UConn was 30-0 and a No. 1 seed going into the tournament but fell in the regional final to Tennessee's team of destiny. The Lady Vols had 10 losses that season but put it together for the NCAA tournament and won the national championship.
This year, at least one perfect team will join those five in losing their first -- and only game -- in the NCAA tournament. And that might be decided on the very last day of the season.
But don't expect UConn and Notre Dame to glance ahead to that. They didn't get this far by overlooking anybody or anything.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UConn beat Notre Dame 79-58 to cap a 40-0 season to win it second consecutive NCAA title and record ninth championship overall.