Huskies, Irish set up title game rematch

TAMPA, Fla. -- In a season in which there really were some unexpected thrills and surprises, the last chapter will be written again by two old reliables: UConn and Notre Dame.

It won't be a meeting of two undefeated teams like last year's NCAA title game, which was won by the Huskies 79-58 over the Irish. But it will be oh-so-familiar to women's basketball fans, who've definitely seen this movie before. And its sequel. And the sequel to the sequel, etc.

The Huskies and the Irish -- former Big East foes now in different leagues -- will meet for the 44th time in program history, and sixth time in the Final Four. UConn leads the series 32-11, including a 76-58 Huskies victory at Notre Dame in December. But in the Final Four, the Irish actually lead 3-2. All three of the Irish victories there have been in the semifinals: in 2001, 2011 and 2012. UConn beat Notre Dame in the 2013 national semifinals and the aforementioned championship match a year ago.

"We've had a long, long relationship with Notre Dame," said UConn's Breanna Stewart, the consensus national player of the year. "It's been a bumpy road at times. The rivalry that's been created and hyped up between the two of us is something I think gets both teams excited."

It also gets both sides pretty revved up, because -- not to mince words -- UConn and Notre Dame don't much like each other. The fan bases snipe back and forth on message boards. The coaches, UConn's Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, traded verbal barbs that somewhat overshadowed last season's final showdown.

"We play attention to that a little bit; it was blown up last year quite a bit," Stewart said. "I think there's always going to be that type of clashing. UConn and Notre Dame has turned into one of the biggest rivalries in the women's game."

Sunday here at Amalie Arena, Notre Dame had to survive a late offensive drought and make a key defensive stand to beat South Carolina 66-65 in the first semifinal. As expected, that battle was the big drama of the night, and it left Irish star Jewell Loyd consoling her friend and All-America counterpart Tiffany Mitchell, who missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.

"They are just relentless, and they never quit," is how McGraw describes her Irish, who improved to 36-2. "Not a senior in the starting lineup. For them to get it together and just keep getting better, it's been really fun to watch."

"UConn and Notre Dame has turned into one of the biggest rivalries in the women's game." UConn star Breanna Stewart

As heart-pounding as the first semifinal game was, the nightcap between the Huskies and Terrapins went as predictably as the recipe for making Minute Rice, with UConn winning 81-58.

"We played really well for long stretches at a time, and we went into the game knowing that Maryland was going to be a difficult matchup for our guards," Auriemma said. "I thought for the most part, we handled it pretty well. When we go on runs and things start going our way, we take advantage of those situations."

The Terps battled, but couldn't stay with the multidimensional machine that is UConn, now 37-1. The Huskies outrebounded the Terps 35-28 and held them to 32.1 percent shooting from the field in the second half, draining the game of any possibility of drama.

"Geno is the best of the best; he's a phenomenal coach," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose team lost in its second consecutive national semifinal. "And it's huge when you're able to build a roster like that."

Indeed, there were three UConn players on the WBCA All-America team announced Saturday, and one of them wasn't Morgan Tuck. She is every UConn fan's favorite "overlooked" standout, and she was superb with 24 points and nine rebounds Sunday. Stewart had 25 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Moriah Jefferson, who joined Stewart on the WBCA team, had 15 points and five assists.

It was an uncharacteristically bad shooting night from the other UConn All-American, 3-point ace Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was 1-of-8 from the field but had seven assists. Yet even her shooting woes didn't cause a bit of trouble for the Huskies.

Now the question is: Can the Irish cause UConn any trouble?

"When you're playing a team you know, you know their plays and what they like to run," Jefferson said of the great familiarity that the Huskies and Irish have with one another. "It's really about what team comes out and plays the hardest."

That might be an oversimplification. Even playing very hard, Notre Dame will be the underdog going into this one. But that's a role the Irish might relish, after being the favorites throughout ACC season. McGraw said after Sunday's win that she thinks her team "overachieved" to get to the national championship game this time.

So we're here once more, with a final that -- let's be frank -- greatly pleases the constituencies of Storrs, Connecticut, and South Bend, Indiana, but might leave many women's hoops fans rolling their eyes and letting loose with a weary "not again" sigh.

But, hey, you have to hand it to the Huskies and Irish. It's not like other programs haven't improved and moved up the ladder to challenge them -- South Carolina being a prime example. And it's not as if both the Huskies and Irish haven't had to make up for big senior departures from last year, as both lost two starters who are now in the WNBA.

UConn had to replace center Stefanie Dolson and guard Bria Hartley. Notre Dame had to do the same for guard Kayla McBride and center Natalie Achonwa, who missed last year's NCAA title game after suffering an ACL injury in the Elite Eight.

You can say that the Huskies and Irish simply reloaded, but that doesn't do justice to how well both of these programs have maintained a high quality of play even when it means having players in new, more challenging roles.

Both squads have gotten very good output from freshmen. Notre Dame post player Brianna Turner had a strong game against South Carolina before fouling out and having to watch nervously from the bench. She finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Turner did not play in December's game against UConn because of a shoulder injury.

For the Huskies, rookie guard Kia Nurse has filled a starting role quite well, averaging 10.1 points per game. She had five points Sunday.

UConn will be going for its 10th NCAA title and third in a row; it would be the second time the Huskies have won three straight titles. Notre Dame is seeking its second national championship; the other was in 2001.

"This is exactly where we want to be right now, it's the last game of the season, and there's still work to do." Stewart said. "There's not a lot of motivation needed. You're playing in the national championship game, and this is the opportunity you've been waiting for.

"Our chemistry has been going on all cylinders, and once we started the NCAA tournament, it seems like things have been going very smoothly. That's what you want to see going into Tuesday night."