- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For quite a while now, Connecticut and Notre Dame have wanted to keep the conversation on the next thing and not about each other. Well, time's up. The Huskies versus the Irish is the next thing. In fact, it is the only thing remaining in this women's college basketball season.
The two former Big East rivals, now in different leagues, will meet Tuesday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) for the NCAA title. The two unbeatens have been edging closer and closer to each other all season, and the "pursuit of perfection" showdown is here at last.
"The two best teams are playing for the national championship," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "And they both earned it. There were no flukes. We got here and so did they, both on our own merits."
The two did it a bit differently in Sunday's semifinals, though. Notre Dame defeated Maryland 87-61 in a game in which the Irish seized control with a very well-executed first half in which they scored 48 points. That was followed by UConn's more grind-it-out 75-56 victory over Stanford, in which the Huskies led by just four points at the break before shooting 60 percent to put it away in the second half.
The end results, though, were the same. The teams Terrapins coach Brenda Frese referred to as "extras in the Miss USA pageant" were, indeed, relegated to the warm-up act of the semifinals. Then it was time to exit, stage left.
Sorry, Cardinal and Terps. You've had terrific runs. But this UConn vs. Notre Dame narrative has overridden everything else about the 2013-14 season.
"Both teams respect how hard each other works," UConn senior Stefanie Dolson said of the Huskies and Irish. "We know them pretty well, and they know us pretty well.
"We saw they rebounded the ball well tonight, and they were extremely aggressive. I think they run a great offense and are very deliberate with what they do. It's definitely a type of team that we haven't faced this year, with how well they execute."
There have been years, of course, when the perceived "best team" in the country didn't actually make it to the championship game. But this year, there have been two best teams. And even with both dealing with injury issues, they will each be there on the final day.
For the eighth time, there will be an undefeated champion in NCAA women's play. But will it be top-seeded UConn, the defending champion seeking its record ninth women's crown, or Notre Dame, trying to win its second title and first since 2001?
There has never been anything quite like this in NCAA women's play: two teams with perfect records in a winner-take-all battle for the national championship. And, as Dolson said, the fact that these teams are so familiar with each other -- this will be their fourth consecutive meeting in the Women's Final Four but the first in the final -- adds all kinds of intriguing backstory to this matchup.
Also, of course, there is their recent history as league rivals in the "old" Big East. That series strongly tilted in favor of the Huskies until the programs' national semifinal matchup in 2011, which Notre Dame won. Counting that game, the Irish have won seven of the past nine against UConn. But the most recent duel was last year's national semifinal, won by UConn on its way to the title.
This season, Notre Dame moved to the ACC, a conference that showed how good it was with its collective performance in the NCAA tournament, including two teams in the Final Four. And yet, even in such a difficult league, the Irish went unbeaten. They won their first ACC tournament in March, then finished "bonus" ACC play by beating Maryland on Sunday.
"I think we're very fearless; we have a certain toughness about us," said Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride, who was the overall star Sunday with 28 points and seven rebounds. "We're ready for anything."
Concern that the Irish would be vulnerable without senior center Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Elite Eight, never materialized at all Sunday. Along with their offensive prowess, the Irish clobbered Maryland on the boards, 50-21.
Meanwhile, Connecticut moved to the American Athletic Conference, where it dominated every foe, even a team such as Louisville that some thought could challenge the Huskies.
That said, UConn hasn't been the prototypical steamroller in the Huskies' past three NCAA tournament victories. Two of those games were close at halftime: The Huskies led by just one point against BYU in the Sweet 16 and by four against Stanford on Sunday. In the Elite Eight victory over Texas A&M, UConn was up by 11 at halftime, but then outscored the Aggies by just four points in the last 20 minutes.
Now, what difference does it make if the result is still a double-digit victory, right? Well, Auriemma acknowledged that he felt "sick to [his] stomach" before Sunday's game, in part because he has been a little nervous about his team not shooting well in stretches of recent games.
"Last year when we came into [the Final Four], I didn't feel as nervous because we came in on a real high," Auriemma said of the 2013 run to the championship. "We were making shots left and right; we were like a machine. This year, not so much. We're kind of like finding our way still, finding ways to win without shooting great. And that's what keeps coaches up at night. What if we don't make any shots?"
His sophomore star Breanna Stewart sounded way more confident in regard to the Huskies' shooting prowess. It doesn't sound as if she'll be losing any sleep about it.
"We're going to get rebounds; we're going to get to the free throw line; we're going to make the ball go through the basket," Stewart said. "Tuesday night, we're going to make shots."
Stewart didn't do that as well as she wanted to Sunday, as she was 4-of-10 from the field. But she went 9-of-11 from the foul line and ended up with a team-high 18 points.
The other four UConn starters scored in double figures, too, as Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 15 points, Bria Hartley 13, and Moriah Jefferson and Dolson 10 each. The Huskies also got nine points and four rebounds off the bench from junior post player Kiah Stokes, which Auriemma said was the kind of big-time performance the Huskies have been waiting for from her. And it prompted a classic Geno-ism.
"Funny stuff happens at the Final Four. She dove on a loose ball," Auriemma said. "You have a better chance of finding that missing plane than you do of finding tape of Kiah Stokes diving on a loose ball. When I saw her do that, I thought, 'OK, she's playing now. She's into the game.'"
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw didn't crack any one-liners like that, although she does have a noted wry sense of humor. Since the Irish played in Sunday's first game, McGraw didn't have much to say about a potential UConn-Notre Dame final. Asked what it would mean if it happened, McGraw said, "Well, better than us meeting in the semifinal."
All right, now it's on. No more talk about "if" or "we can't look ahead." It's the 39-0 Huskies versus the 37-0 Irish for all the marbles.
"Only one team is going to win, and somebody is going to be devastated by Tuesday night's loss," Auriemma said. "That's the beauty of the NCAA tournament. There are the absolute greatest highs that a kid and a coaching staff can ever possibly experience. And, unfortunately, if you don't win that last game, it's about as low as you'll ever feel."
They advanced in different ways -- in the national semifinals, UConn grinded out a win and Notre Dame executed extremely well -- but the Huskies and Irish will clash Tuesday in a championship game of unbeaten teams.