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The secret behind UConn-ND rivalry

If disliking Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma made a rivalry matter, there would be a great many more meaningful rivalries in women's college basketball. That meaningful, in this era, is mostly defined by the ability to beat his teams explains their scarcity.

And it explains why the state of what has been the best rivalry in recent years turns not on anything the coaches say before it is renewed Saturday afternoon in South Bend, or anything we say about the two of them before No. 2 Notre Dame hosts No. 3 Connecticut (ESPN/WatchESPN, 3:15 p.m. ET), but what the scoreboard says with 10 minutes remaining.

That's what the rivalry has been. That's what it has to be if it's going to continue to matter.

Otherwise all we're left with is two stubborn Philadelphians who may or may not be able to stand each other. That works to sell a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. It isn't an honest way to sell a sport.

The coaching Sturm und Drang reached its crescendo at the Final Four in Nashville. In response to a question about the relationship between the coaches, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said that there was no relationship and that when it came to existing on civil terms, the two programs were "past that point." Auriemma responded soon thereafter with familiar sarcasm, noting the perception within and around the women's game that its coaches are supposed "to go to dinner every night" and generally behave with a genteelness not demanded of their peers in men's college basketball.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, on the other hand, McGraw dismissed any notion of bad blood between the coaches.

That country music ballad about being done wrong that they cowrote in Music City? Never happened.

"Geno and I are terrific," McGraw said in response to a question about lingering angst. "We saw each other this summer. We've got no issues, no problems. Just business as usual for both of us."

Believe it, don't believe it. Whatever.

Feuds are junk food, momentary pleasure but ultimately hollow. The only way to recapture the rush they offer is to find, or create, another, right on into oblivion. Rivalries nourish. They strengthen. They make sports better.

There are rivalries of the moment and rivalries of the ages. Nobody is going to tell stories of the epic encounters between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the 1980s. Separated not only by a conference in the days before the Seahawks landed in the NFC but by the difference between Joe Montana and Dave Krieg, they had no rivalry. These days they have one of the best ones in the NFL. Five years from now they might again be strangers.

The Packers and Bears or Alabama and Auburn? Those rivalries endure the years.

Connecticut and Notre Dame don't have that. There is no grand rivalry between the two schools that transcends all sports. They shared a conference only briefly in the scheme of things. There really isn't even a women's basketball rivalry of greater historical significance than that Connecticut shares with Stanford. Certainly not like Tennessee, dormant though that rivalry may be.

What there is, regardless of yesterday or tomorrow, is a rivalry today.

Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose team twice lost national championship games against Connecticut but who also engineered one of the sport's biggest giant-slaying upsets against Baylor, has more than once made the point that worrying about the final result against Connecticut is getting ahead of yourself. The first step is to make the game competitive with about 10 minutes to play. Few teams have less experience with that scenario than the Huskies.

The record, while perhaps on some level understood, is still remarkable in black and white. Forget the final scores, which are often lopsided enough. Going back to the start of the 2010-11 season, you almost don't need a second hand to be able to count the number of marquee games involving Connecticut that were competitive with 10-12 minutes to play. At least you wouldn't need the second hand if Notre Dame didn't exist.

With 12:13 remaining in the game this season, Stanford trailed Connecticut by three points. We know how that turned out. But in that span of four-plus seasons, and using an admittedly subjective method of defining marquee games, that scenario was far and away the exception rather than the rule.

Connecticut led Stanford by 24 points with 11:27 to play in the regular season a year ago and 15 points with 11:30 to play in the Final Four. The Huskies led Duke by 18 points with 10:53 to play a season ago and 21 points with 10:11 to play the season before that. Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas A&M -- it's the same story. Home or away. Regular season or postseason. By the time the game was on the line, the game was already effectively over.

It's the same thing that happened in the national championship game a season ago, too. Connecticut controlled the game from the outset, but it led by seven points at halftime, not an insurmountable deficit for a Notre Dame team that could look to the manageable margin as proof they could stay in the game without injured center Natalie Achonwa.

Then came the run, the run that always comes. In this case, a 16-2 run in about a six-minute stretch of game time.

With 12:04 remaining, Connecticut led by 21 points. Same as it ever was.

Again, this isn't news to anyone. There isn't some misplaced perception out there that Connecticut plays a lot of close games. The Huskies are known for routs. But the actual numbers might be even more mind-boggling than the perception.

Except with Notre Dame.

Connecticut and Notre Dame played 12 games in the span of three seasons from 2010-13. In nine of those games, there was a margin of five or fewer points with around 10 minutes remaining. In some cases the Fighting Irish were ahead, in others the Huskies led. But Connecticut almost never landed an early knockout punch.

It's not even that Notre Dame beat Connecticut seven times in three years. It's that it had an opportunity to do so almost every time the two teams played and acted like it. That started with Skylar Diggins, who has never set foot on a court she didn't believe she belonged on, but it continued through Achonwa and Kayla McBride.

As with the game this past spring in Nashville, Saturday's contest appears likely to be marred by an absence. Notre Dame freshman Brianna Turner, the team's second leading scorer and a player who did some of her best work after experiencing some early adversity in a game against Michigan State, suffered a shoulder injury in the first half of Wednesday's game against Maryland. There was no update Thursday on her status, necessarily leaving her availability in doubt.

Is Connecticut, lessons learned after the defeat at Stanford, still the team that so rarely needs more than 30 minutes to subdue an opponent? If Turner is absent, the freshman spotlight shines all the brighter on Connecticut's Kia Nurse, who was quiet against the Cardinal but has totaled 65 points, 17 assists and just four turnovers in four games since. If this is who the Canadian international is already, surely it restores some of the balance that appeared absent without Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson in the early loss.

Is Notre Dame, even potentially without Turner, still the team that doesn't let Connecticut make that run? Is Jewell Loyd, beyond matching Breanna Stewart highlight-for-highlight in the meeting of arguably the two best players in the country, ready to lead a team against Connecticut in the same way Diggins and McBride were? And are Lindsay Allen and Taya Reimer, sophomores whose only experience against Connecticut came in that big loss in Nashville, as ready as the team's staggering early offensive output (94.8 points per game, 52.7 field goal shooting) suggests?

This is a basketball game and arguably the most fascinating one of the young season.

Coaches who can't stand Auriemma lose to his teams by double digits. Coaches who pal around with him lose to his teams by double digits. Coaches who pal around with him but secretly want to stick a basketball down his throat lose to his teams by double digits. None of that matters.

What makes a rivalry is when their teams can beat his -- and when those teams know it.

We'll know more about how good a rivalry this is with about 10 minutes remaining Saturday.