It's hard not to peek ahead at Notre Dame vs. UConn

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

It's the match-up that Muffet McGraw and Geno Auriemma aren't talking about. It's not up for discussion by anyone in the inner circles of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and the Connecticut Huskies. The no-looking-ahead order has been given in both camps.

But the potential to see two unbeaten teams, the Irish (32-0) and the Huskies (34-0), in the national championship game is the hottest topic in women's college basketball.

There has never been an NCAA basketball championship -- in the women's or the men's tournaments -- that featured two unbeaten teams. And the way the NCAA women's basketball tournament bracket is laid out, the Irish and Huskies wouldn't meet until the championship game, April 8, in Nashville.

"I think every fan and every follower of the game for the last five, 10, 20 or 30 years, if you've been around it, would be thrilled with the prospect of Notre Dame playing Connecticut in the national championship game, if it does come to that, and what it would bring to women's basketball, just from a national perspective," ESPN broadcaster Beth Mowins said. "There would be a lot of intrigue in that matchup for a lot of people who may not watch women's hoops, and from that perspective, I think it would be the greatest championship that there's ever been."

Associated Press national women's basketball writer Doug Feinberg said a Connecticut-Notre Dame matchup would transcend the sport.

"We saw the four No. 1 seeds advance to the Final Four two years ago in the women's game, and that was pretty historic, but it didn't really move the needle outside of women's basketball, whereas, two undefeateds ... the casual fan would probably take notice," Feinberg said.

Notre Dame's tournament journey begins Saturday in Toledo at 1:30 p.m. EDT against Robert Morris (21-10). Connecticut tips off against Prairie View (14-17) on Sunday at 8 p.m. in Storrs, Conn.

Connecticut and Notre Dame have dominated opponents this season. Connecticut has trailed a total of 31 minutes the entire season. The biggest deficit was 7-0 to Louisville. The closest game was an 11-point victory, 66-55, at Baylor. Notre Dame has only had two decisions by fewer than 10 points -- 79-72 at Virginia and 87-83 at Maryland. Connecticut and Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the final Associated Press poll.

John Altavilla, who covers the Huskies for the Hartford Courant, said Connecticut has been spectacular this season despite numerous personnel issues. The Huskies lost 6-foot-2 forward Morgan Tuck to a knee injury. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was the nation's top 3-point shooter last season and averages 12.4 points a game, missed eight games with an elbow injury, and another four to mono. Guards Brianna Banks and Moriah Jefferson have had ankle injuries.

But the Huskies have 6-4 sophomore Brianna Stewart, who averages 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, and 6-foot-5 Stefanie Dolson, who averages 12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds. Stewart scored 29 points in last season's 83-65 win by the Huskies over Notre Dame in the Final Four.

Altavilla doesn't think that loss in the Final Four will haunt the Irish if they meet the Huskies for the national championship. The Irish played Connecticut 15 times in the previous four seasons before the Irish headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Connecticut transitioned to the American Athletic Conference.

"There's no other team in the country that can say they've beaten Connecticut seven out of nine times," Altavilla said. "Notre Dame is not going to be afraid of Connecticut."

ESPN expert analyst Kara Lawson said Stewart is the difference-maker.

"The huge disparity is Breanna Stewart and how can Notre Dame defend her," Lawson said. "The other big advantage that Connecticut has is they are a superior defensive team."

Stewart, who is expected to be the national player of the year, is a match-up problem. She's 6-4 with the skills of a shooting guard. Connecticut has focused on improving her post skills this season, to make her more of an inside-outside threat. She's hit 44-of-119 shots from 3-point range (37 percent), and can explode past a defender to drive inside.

"Breanna Stewart is the reason people would think Connecticut would win it, because she's above and beyond anybody else," Altavilla said. "The last two months, she's been unstoppable."

Lawson said the Irish depth is a key factor. Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable bring 3-point shooting, tough defense and passing skills to the Irish attack. Taya Reimer and Markisha Wright bring physical play, rebounding and inside scoring.

Notre Dame's wings will also be advantages, according to Lawson. Jewell Loyd averages 18.5 points and Kayla McBride averages 17.5.

"Notre Dame has the two best wings in the country in Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd," Lawson said. "They can score on anybody, they both can shoot the 3, they can drive, they can hit the pull-up jumper, they can pass, they're both athletic."

Who can keep Connecticut and Notre Dame from meeting up? The Huskies are in a regional in which the No. 2 seed, Duke, is a team they beat by 22 points on the Blue Devils' home court, when Duke wasn't on its third point guard. But the Huskies could have a potential game against Nebraska on the Cornhuskers' home court in the regional. Notre Dame could have a tough battle against either Baylor or Kentucky, but that would be in the regional, which the Irish host.

Although the Irish have their sights set on Robert Morris, McGraw and her players have been swatting away plenty of questions about Connecticut during various NCAA Tournament press conferences.

"It's not easy, with the media, your friends and family, and everyone trying to look forward and really excited about the whole tournament, but with the 13 players we have, the coaches and the entire staff, we're focused on the one game that's ahead of us, and we're holding true to that," Irish senior Natalie Achonwa said.

If the Irish and Huskies can stay the course and meet in the Final Four, Feinberg wants a battle that will help grow the game.

"I hope it's close," Feinberg said. "The worst thing that could happen, the two of them meet in the finals, the finals that everybody is talking about, and UConn wins by 30."

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: rallo NDInsider

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa, right, defends Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson under the basket during the Women's Basketball Final Four game against UCONN inside New Orleans Arena in New Orleans on Sunday, April 7, 2013. (South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

What: NCAA Tournament, first round

Who: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (32-0) vs. No. 16 Robert Morris (21-11)

When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Toledo, Ohio, Savage Arena (7,300)

TV: ESPN

Radio: Pulse FM (96.9 FM, 92.1 FM)