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Women's Final Four: UConn and Notre Dame bring out the best in each other

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Geno: 'We had our struggles' (1:17)

Geno Auriemma talks about what makes this year's Huskies different from their predecessors heading into their Final Four match against Notre Dame. (1:17)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ask Geno Auriemma about his favorite rivalries to watch and the UConn coach goes to the Eagles-Cowboys in the NFL and the Yankees-Red Sox in Major League Baseball.

But when it comes to women's team sports, few things are as intense as the two women's basketball rivalries in which his Huskies have been involved, with Tennessee and Notre Dame.

Their 50th game with the Irish will take place Friday at Amalie Arena as UConn and Notre Dame meet in the Women's Final Four. It's their eighth meeting at the Final Four, with the Irish winning in the semifinals in 2001, 2011, 2012 and last year on Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale's buzzer-beater in overtime.

UConn has won against Notre Dame in the 2013 semifinals, and the 2014 and 2015 championship games. The latter was here in Tampa when the Huskies were led by superstar Breanna Stewart, then in the midst of winning four championships.

This is a different kind of UConn team than some of the past. These Huskies might not have, as Auriemma puts it, an "iconic" player like Stewart, Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore, the kind who in the huddle says, "What are you guys worried about? You got me."

But the Huskies still have a ton of talent, including first-team All-American Napheesa Collier and fellow senior Katie Lou Samuelson, whose 29-point performance in the regional final victory over Louisville was the definition of clutch. They have point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who took over the fourth quarter of their Sweet 16 win over UCLA, and forward Megan Walker, who was strong on the boards in both regional games.

And there's freshman guard Christyn Williams, who burst out of the gate flying in the Huskies' 89-71 victory at Notre Dame on Dec. 2. She finished with 28 points then, but says it wasn't her best game of the season because she didn't do enough other things, getting only one rebound and one assist. That's the kind of thing Auriemma likes to hear.

Last year when UConn lost that heartbreaker to Notre Dame, Williams was back home in Arkansas watching the game with friends at a restaurant. How did she react to her future school losing?

"I don't even think I finished my meal," she said. "That was my team going down for the second year in a row in the exact same way."

Indeed, in 2017, the Huskies also lost in the semifinals in overtime on a buzzer-beater, that one to Mississippi State. Collier and Samuelson have kept alive those memories for fuel but don't want to give them too much power.

It helps to have a youngster like Williams around, someone who has the kind of enthusiasm and joy that perks up everybody.

"It makes it more a realization that this is something special that you've got to cherish," Samuelson said.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame comes into this Final Four with four starters -- Ogunbowale, Jackie Young, Jessica Shepard and Marina Mabrey -- who were on the floor for last year's national championship. And there's Brianna Turner, who returned this season from an ACL injury that kept her sidelined in 2017-18.

Ogunbowale said the Irish have tried to keep the focus on this year, and not on the past. And while all involved acknowledge there is heat to this rivalry, there is also plenty of mutual respect.

"We've had some great meetings, and they are a great program," Ogunbowale said of the Huskies. "It's always such a competitive game when we play each other. Geno is a Hall of Fame coach, and he's done so many things for women's basketball, so there's always respect there. But ... when I step on the court, that really goes out the window. It's just basketball, and what I can do for my team."

And if Friday's game again comes down to making a do-or-die shot, Ogunbowale won't shy away from taking it.

"Even when I was younger and maybe wasn't capable of making a big shot, I still wanted to shoot it," Ogunbowale said. "I think it's just the confidence that I've always had in myself."

That's a trait -- confidence -- Notre Dame developed against UConn in their days together in the Big East. The Irish didn't always have it to the degree they do now, but they developed it. And it's something of which the Huskies are aware.

"We know going in that Notre Dame doesn't ever play scared of us," Samuelson said. "There are times you can feel teams just being scared of the name 'UConn.' That's not something Notre Dame has an issue with.

"This [rivalry] is something you carry with you after you leave here. It's something that everyone knows around the country, and a game people tune into just because of the names."

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Ogunbowale is no stranger to big moments

Arike Ogunbowale is no stranger to big-time moments as Notre Dame prepares to take on UConn in the 2019 Women's Final Four.

UConn leads the all-time series with Notre Dame 37-12. When they were both in the Big East, they could meet as many as four times in a season, and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw thought that much familiarity bred a little too much contempt. She's glad to be in the ACC, with UConn in the American Athletic Conference. They still have their regular-season game, and the possibility of an NCAA matchup. That's enough.

"I think a little distance has been good for us," McGraw said.

The Huskies' series with Tennessee ran from 1995 to 2007 before it was cancelled by Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. UConn and Tennessee are set to resume their series next season. But in the absence of Tennessee-UConn, Notre Dame-UConn blossomed.

How great has it been to be part of both those rivalries?

"I like to think we've been pretty good for a long time, and we bring out the best in other people," Auriemma said. "And maybe other teams like Notre Dame and Tennessee bring out the best in us, too."