The Game of the Century, pitting Elvin Hayes versus Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the then state-of-the-art Astrodome, more than doubled the attendance record for a basketball game and became the first nationally-televised, regular-season, hardwood collegiate contest.
By defeating UCLA 71-69, Houston gave fans the excitement and the upset they had eagerly awaited. But when the Houston Cougars played the UCLA Bruins in the “Game of the Century,” the undefeated teams had played but half of the 1967-1968 season.
Tonight, the women’s “Game of the Century” pits two undefeated teams against one another on the final night of the tournament. This has never happened in men’s or women’s college basketball. Furthermore, Notre Dame last lost last year to UConn and UConn last lost last year to Notre Dame. The anticipated match-up, airing at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN, plays as a once-in-a-lifetime event that transcends the normally niche audience of women’s basketball. If you aren’t watching tonight, you ain’t ever watching.
Notre Dame’s 37-0 versus UConn’s 39-0 is drama enough. The contempt between the coaches makes the game more like a primetime soap opera. Storylines abound.
“It’s a little like how you would feel about a bully,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of UConn. “I think you have to go in there and attack and not listen to everything that’s said.” McGraw admitted that the women’s basketball programs at UConn and Notre Dame seem past the point of civility and affirmed that “hate” would be an apt word to characterize the rivalry.
“This is a function of women’s basketball,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma offered. “Sometimes we act like girls, like we’re supposed to go to dinner every night. We’re supposed to play each other, try to beat each other’s brains in, try to win a national championship, and compete like hell, Muffet and Geno. And then we’re supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine? That s#!+ is just not going to happen.”
The game has history as well as hype on its side. Not only does UConn look to win a women’s title the day after the school claimed the men’s national championship, and to repeat as national champions, but coach Geno Auriemma seeks to surpass former University of Tennessee coach Pat Summit by winning his ninth championship.
The teams occupy such an elite status that starting on them nearly guarantees a spot on some level of All-American list. UConn boasts three All-Americans in their starting five: player of the year Breanna Stewart, center Stefanie Dolson, and guard Bria Hartley. Notre Dame, as if a continuation of the tit-for-tat, also boasts three All Americans: guard Kayla McBride, guard Jewell Loyd, and center Natalie Achonwa. The difference-maker may be an injury to Achonwa, who’ll watch from the bench.
“We’ve been winning for a long time,” UCLA coach John Wooden reflected after the men’s Game of the Century. “The only thing I think is worse than losing too much is winning too much.” Easy for him to say after a regular season loss. When the “0” goes tonight in a championship game, nobody will react in such an aw-shucks manner.