Clash of Notre Dame, Connecticut women's teams is 'epic’

South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It just doesn’t get any better than this.

It wasn’t a fluke that Notre Dame (37-0) and Connecticut (39-0) steamrolled their way through five months of competition without a loss. Perfection is just a by-product of two amazing runs that will end Tuesday night at the ultimate destination.

More than the NCAA women’s basketball national championship is at stake. Nora Lynn Finch sees the game as an opportunity to determine the best team ever in the 32-year history of the tournament.

Finch, the senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference, was the first committee chair for NCAA women’s basketball when the tourney began in 1981-82.

“(Sunday’s semifinal blowouts) show that these are the two elite teams,” said Finch. “If you took either one of these two teams and had them play in this (championship) game over the last 10 years, it would be the true elite team.

“We’re at the point where the best two teams ever in the history of NCAA women’s basketball are going to meet (Tuesday) for the national championship.

“I can say that because I’ve seen every (tournament), up close and personal. That’s pretty cool.”

Now that’s must-see TV.

ESPN got the bonanza it was hoping for since early February. Not even a knee injury to Notre Dame All-American Natalie Achonwa will spoil the prime-time show.

“The women’s basketball fan, obviously, has an interest in the game,” said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. “The ‘almost’ women’s basketball fan will have an interest in the game. Those that have not had any interest may tune in to see what’s going on.

“All that is important. All that is good on the way to where we want the game to go. There needs to be more rivalries like Connecticut and Notre Dame.

“People need to see it. It’s good that an awful lot of people will be able to see it on a big stage.

“Whether Connecticut wins; whether Notre Dame wins; the actual game of women’s basketball Wednesday morning will be better off for what happens (Tuesday night) than if it had never happened.”

Auriemma was able to step back and look at the big-picture perspective.

“Our sport doesn’t have enough significant moments,” he said. “To have the spotlight Tuesday on two teams, one that’s going to lose for the first time, it’s pretty remarkable.”

“The history makes (this game) a little more enticing,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “The casual fan, there’s a lot of people who haven’t seen a lot of women’s basketball … They’re seeing two undefeated teams go at it.

“I don’t know if anything is bigger than the game, but it’s certainly an enticing matchup.”

“You have teams that are at a very high level playing against each other,” said Anucha Brown, NCAA vice president for the women’s basketball championship. “These two arguably are the strongest we’ve seen in a very long time. This is what you want in a national championship game.

“It’s a true testament to where this sport is. You can sit on the sideline and watch two teams like Notre Dame and UConn play and forget those are women playing. They’re just phenomenal basketball players. It proves that you can set the bar pretty high and women will meet it.”

A game of this magnitude can grow a fan base and cultivate a sport.

“It gives the media, both local and national, something the public can understand,” Finch said. “This is epic.

“That first year (1981-82), we started from scratch. We had a men’s basketball championship model that the NCAA very much wanted the women’s basketball community, coaches and administrators to follow.

“You can’t take what (the men) have and apply it across the board. You’ve got to grow your playing before you could have your championship. You grow your media interest by having good games. You have good games by having good players. You have good players by having good coaches and parents who recognize the need for youth sports.

“Our game had not had the seeds sewn for very long (in the beginning). We started a championship with relatively few skilled players.”

If a women’s basketball game is ever going to get widespread interest and respectable television ratings, it will be this one. All the eggs, so to speak, are in the basket carried by the Irish and the Huskies.

“(The NCAA) wants the world to see how entertaining women’s basketball can be,” Finch said. “When you have 20-point differences, a lot of people leave that channel and go to something more exciting.

“You want excitement. You want close competition. You want to see the best.

“Everyone knows the Notre Dame team is not as strong when you take one of the players off. When you lose one of the key contributors, of course you’re not as strong. We’re not trying to pretend things are like they were a week ago (before Achonwa’s injury). They’re not.

“Muffet also knows this is a team game and you’re going to play this game one time, not five times or 10 times. We’re playing one game. Everyone (at Notre Dame) has to step it up one time. I believe they will.

“I believe they’re the underdog. That’s not to say I don’t believe they’re good enough to win because they are.”

In that case, an Irish victory would be good for the game of women’s basketball.

Muffet and her crew would gladly oblige.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318


Notre Dame's Kayla McBride has a shot blocked by Connecticut's Morgan Tuck during last year's national semifinal in New Orleans. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)