COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — It wasn’t long ago Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw were constantly on each other’s minds.
That’s what happens when you coach two of the nation’s best teams and play in the same conference. UConn and Notre Dame would play four times a season, heightening the intensity of one of the best rivalries in women’s college basketball.
Now with the two powerhouse programs in different conferences, the intensity has diminished. They play only once a season, with a second meeting usually coming on the grand stage of the Final Four.
“The neat thing about it is after every game in December now I will say to her all the time, ‘I’ll see you in March. If I see you in March it will be in the Final Four, so that’s cool,” Auriemma said.
The unbeaten Huskies and Irish play Friday night in the national semifinals in which all four top seeds advanced. The winner will face Louisville or Mississippi State for the title Sunday night.
There was a stretch between 2010 and 2013 when the two squads played 15 times. The Irish won seven times, twice knocking UConn out of the Final Four.
“I think now we only play them once a year, there is some distance to the rivalry,” McGraw said. “I think that it always, of course, will be a rivalry just because they’re the best team in the country right now. But I think it’s not that intensity that we had when we were in the Big East because you’re constantly watching in your conference.
“Now we’re in the ACC, and we’re focused on that, and that’s the best conference in women’s basketball. We can’t really afford to be watching a lot of other teams. We really focused on that.
So I think it definitely has lessened the intensity of the rivalry, but that could change tomorrow.”
In the title game of the 2013 season, with both teams unbeaten, the Huskies beat the Irish. UConn has won the five meetings since, including a 80-71 victory on Dec. 3 this season. Notre Dame led that game by double digits in the fourth quarter before the Huskies rallied to win despite two ailing All-Americans — Gabby Williams sat out the second half with a migraine; Katie Lou Samuelson reinjured her foot in the final period.
“I think we could take a lot from that,” McGraw said. “Where we went wrong, where we went right. I think we changed some things since then.”
While the Huskies are Final Four fixtures, the Irish are back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2015. This might have been one of McGraw’s best coaching jobs, having to overcome knee ligament injuries to four players during the season.
“It’s one of the most rewarding since ’97 when we were a six seed and it was completely unexpected,” McGraw said. “Definitely been one where we worked hard for it.”
Other tidbits from Notre Dame-UConn:
11 AND COUNTING: It’s the 11th consecutive Final Four appearance for the Huskies, breaking a tie with John Wooden and the UCLA men’s team for the Division I record. UConn is in the semifinals for the 19th time, snapping a tie with Tennessee for the most in women’s basketball.
GLUE FACTOR: Notre Dame senior Kathyrn Westbeld has been the constant for the Irish. She battled back from an ankle injury early in the season only to hurt the other ankle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. She worked her way back to play a key role in the Irish’s win over Villanova in the second round and then was a big factor in beating Oregon to get the Irish to the Final Four.
“I couldn’t be happier for a person than Kat Westbeld,” McGraw said. “She’s gone through so many injuries and didn’t practice last six weeks of the season because she had a ton of pain. … We call her the glue because she keeps us together. She does so many things.”
TIP-INS: UConn and Notre Dame have played 46 times, with the Huskies holding a 35-11 advantage. … Kia Nurse was honored with the WBCA Defensive Player of the Year award. She’s the third Huskies player to win it, joining Williams (2017) and Stefanie Dolson (2014).
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