Geno Auriemma’s default response when trying to explain something that defies explanation is ‘it is what it is.”
Like, what’s left to say when Notre Dame and UConn prepare to meet for the eighth time in the last two seasons in Sunday’s national semifinal game in Denver?
“What can you say, other than its great for the Big East to have two of its teams in this position,” Auriemma said Wednesday. “You would love to say you would see someone different. You would love to say you want to see somebody different, but reality they are just really, really good.”
Three weeks ago, the NCAA women’s basketball selection committee anointed Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame and UConn as its four No. 1 seeds.Tuesday, the Fighting Irish and UConn joined the Lady Bears and Cardinal at the 2012 Final Four in Denver.
And because of the way the bracket was splayed, the Huskies (33-4) and Irish (34-3) will meet in the national semifinals for the second straight season [ESPN, 6:30 p.m.]. That will be followed by undefeated Baylor (38-0) vs. Stanford at 9.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the Huskies hold a 4-3 edge; not that it’s relevant anymore.
“It’s great for the conference to know we have two Final Four teams again in the conference,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “It’s a shame that we continue to play each in the Final Four. You look forward to getting out of conference when you get there, but we’re just thrilled to be playing in the Final Four with such great company as Connecticut.”
UConn both regular-season games last year and then defeated Notre Dame in the Big East championship game. Notre Dame avenged it all, ending the Huskies chance to win a third straight national championship – and Maya Moore’s career – in the national semifinals in Indianapolis.
This season, Notre Dame won the two regular-season games before UConn responded with a win in the Big East tournament title game, 63-54.
“We did something completely different for the Big East championship [offensive] which helped us change the game,” Auriemma said. “There are only so many thing we can do that are different. My guess is we go out there Sunday night … I don’t know if we can make a whole lot of changes from now and then. In some ways there is some comfort in knowing that you don’t need to prepare as much because you know them so well.’
“We like to go to the Final Four every year, who wouldn’t?,” Geno Auriemma said. “Some years are easier than others. There are people who live in Connecticut, not at the university, but people who live there who don’t think we can lose next week. They think we’re going to beat whomever we beat Sunday by 100 and whoever we play Tuesday by 90, It’s just the way they are. The expectations are always there, no matter what the probability is of us going.”
Neither team played a nail-biter on the way to Denver. UConn’s 80-65 win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight was paved by an offensive effort led by senior Tiffany Hayes, who scored 20 points on her way to being named the region’s Most Outstanding Player.
Junior All-American Skylar Diggins, a first-team All-American, led Notre Dame to an 80-49 drubbing of Maryland in the Ralieigh final with a triple-double – 22 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals. She is the first Irish player with a triple-double since 1990.
“This game [the Maryland win] is great momentum for us going into [the Final Four] and our incentive is getting back to the championship,” Diggins said. Notre Dame lost to Texas A&M in the title game. “That’s been our goal, which we’ve wanted to do all year. … There’s nothing, really, that you could tell us about UConn that we didn’t already know.”
This is UConn’s fifth straight Final Four, its 13th overall since 1991. They have won seven national championships. This is Notre Dame’s fourth Final Four, its third since 2001. They have won just one title.
“We are thrilled to be back again,” McGraw said. “I’m just so excited about my team. We’ve played so consistently all year long, but right now we are really starting to peak, which is what we’ve been working for the entire season. We want to be better for this time of the year.”
And when they play, a new tradition – of professional respect and competitive contempt – will renew itself again before the national eye.
“It’s good for the sport to new rivalries born,” said Connecticut Sun guard Kalana Greene, the former UConn player. “It used to be us against Tennessee and then that died out. Now it’s UConn-Stanford, which is still going strong.
“I’m guessing this game is going to be just as exciting as the first three. But I will tell you, there is a level of dislike mixed in with the respect we had for each other. When UConn players come into the program, they can’t stand Notre Dame. I didn’t like Notre Dame.
“But how can you not respect the progress they’ve made over the years? They may not be one of the most talented teams, but they are one of the most hard-working teams you’ll see in the nation. You always have to respect a team like that.”