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The game, not jabs, is what matters

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On one hand, UConn coach Geno Auriemma will say he no longer cares about what goes on beyond the court. Darts tossed around -- real or perceived -- in regard to his Huskies and all their success don't bother him.

Except when they do.

So here we go with the sequel to "Pat versus Geno." It's "Muffet versus Geno," as the coaches in Tuesday night's NCAA women's basketball championship game will be set up as bitter adversaries whose supposed personal animosity is a big part of this Women's Final Four.

Is it real, or is it manufactured? Is it just grist ground by a media group that includes some who don't closely follow women's basketball all season, but come to the Women's Final Four hungering to feast on the expected Auriemma quote smorgasbord?

In this case, it's some of both. Auriemma and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who each have undefeated teams heading into Tuesday's clash (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), tossed some fuel on the fire when asked about the rivalry Monday.

"Oh, it's heated," McGraw said. "I don't think there's any question it's the most intense rivalry we've ever been involved with. I think it's the lack of respect. It's the heated intensity of the games. It's the bragging rights that go along with the win. I think it's a lot of those things."

Asked about what could bring the so-called "civility" back to the rivalry, McGraw said, "I think we're past that point."

What used to be more playful jabs between Auriemma and McGraw, two coaches with Philadelphia roots, seemed to become something decidedly less convivial this postseason. Why? It's been brewing awhile. But the hot-button issue is the back-and-forth remarks the coaches and their schools have made about facing each other in nonconference play now that they're no longer in the same league.

With the breakup of the former Big East came hard feelings. Auriemma has put blame on Notre Dame football for staying independent and not joining the Big East to keep the league together in its former incarnation. And while the rest of Notre Dame's sports teams got a good landing spot in the ACC, UConn is in a new league of leftover teams, to be frank, called the American Athletic Conference.

UConn women's basketball has a need for strong nonconference opponents. Notre Dame now can be one of them, and the two teams will face off next season in the Jimmy V Classic at Notre Dame. Why didn't they play this season? Each said it was the other's choice.

McGraw said during the NCAA tournament selection show that it was a disappointment that the Huskies didn't fit Notre Dame into their schedule this season. Asked about that in a subsequent news conference, Auriemma said, "Let me just say it's not nice to fib during Lent."

That remark -- albeit a prototypical Auriemma one-liner -- really seemed to anger McGraw. Fast-forward to Monday. Like mice getting a whiff of cheese, reporters got the scent of a sound-bite-driven feud between Auriemma and McGraw, somewhat similar to what went on between Auriemma and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt during the heyday of that rivalry.

Add in the "ingredients" that this NCAA title game is being played in Tennessee and Auriemma could pass Summitt for most NCAA titles (nine); then stir it all up and put it in the oven already preheated by a meeting between two undefeated teams.

"I think that the entire Tennessee nation will be on our side," McGraw said when asked who Lady Vols fans in attendance will root for. "There are a lot of people who want to see us win just to preserve Pat's legacy now.

"I think all women's coaches really respect her and looked up to her, because they knew when she spoke, it was about what was good for the women's game. She role-modeled how to be gracious in victory, as well as defeat. She was such a classy coach and, unfortunately, the game and sportsmanship lost a lot when we lost her."

Summitt, who is battling early-onset dementia and moved to a coach emeritus role after the 2011-12 season, ended her program's regular-season series against UConn after the 2006-07 season, and they have not met since. The reason Tennessee gave at the time was, essentially, that the program was tired of the accumulation of barbs it felt Auriemma had tossed Summitt's way over the years. A more acute issue between the programs then, though, was the matter of their mutual recruitment of superstar Maya Moore, who went to UConn.

McGraw's praise of Summitt's classiness was pointed in the direction of Auriemma. His quips suggesting the ACC wasn't all that great and "We use big words at Connecticut, too," were directed at Notre Dame.

Bottom line, though: This is still about the teams who will take the court Tuesday for the title, both of whom are known for their precise execution, and neither have been distracted by anything on their way to perfection this season.

So will Monday's media-egged-on, Muffet-versus-Geno "chatter battle" really matter at tipoff? No, but as sideshows go, it certainly fit the bill.