Tennessee fans likely to be in Notre Dame's corner
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma is currently tied with Tennessee legend Pat Summitt with eight national championships, and winning on Tuesday night would give him sole possession of the record.
The possibility that Auriemma, a bitter rival of Tennessee’s, could take the record on a court in Tennessee could swing Volunteers’ fans to the Irish side when the game is played in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
“I think that the entire Tennessee nation will be on our side,” McGraw said. “Coast-to-coast, there are a lot of people who want to see us win, just to preserve Pat Summitt’s legacy.”
McGraw said Summitt set the gold standard for coaches in women’s basketball, and not merely for the number of titles or victories in her Hall of Fame career.
“What Pat Summitt has done for the women’s game has been unbelievable,” McGraw said. “I think that all women’s coaches respect her and look up to her, because they knew when she spoke, it was about what was good for the women’s game.”
According to McGraw, Summitt role-modeled how to be gracious in victory and how to be gracious in defeat.
“I think she was such a classy coach,” McGraw said. “I think that, unfortunately, the game and sportsmanship has lost a lot when we lost her from the coaching ranks.”
Shutting out the noise
Notre Dame senior Kayla McBride said the harsh words between McGraw and Auriemma don’t affect her or the other Irish players.
“I merely take it as noise,” McBride said. “It’s just something that’s a part of the game.”
McBride said McGraw isn’t about to let anybody criticize Notre Dame or question her integrity.
“I think it’s funny because I know coach McGraw, and she’s not like that at all, so it’s funny to hear her say those things,” McBride said. “It’s entertainment, but when it comes down to it, it’s about basketball.”
McBride said that the Irish and Huskies play incredibly hard against each other, but that the rivalry hasn’t crossed the line. Tenacious play has been a constant in the series the past four seasons.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say hate ... I would say respectful dislike,” McBride said when asked to describe the relationship between Irish and Huskies players on the court. “I respect them, I respect their program and what they have to offer, but I dislike them, because of how physical we play against each other.”
McBride said the Irish don’t shy away from physical play.
“It’s something I enjoy,” McBride said with a smile. “I’m not going to lie.”
Connecticut players aren’t allowed to use social media during basketball season. And they can’t wear fingernail polish.
All of Notre Dame’s players paint their fingernails green during the NCAA Tournament, and the Irish players are tweeting during the tournament. Most of the Irish tweets are compliments to teammates, or thanking fans for support at a home game.
Irish freshman Taya Reimer said that Twitter is fun for her, and it’s a way for her to stay connected with friends.
“I wouldn’t mind either way,” Reimer said of Connecticut’s Twitter rule. “If that’s what Connecticut wants for its team, I respect that.”
Connecticut’s Stefanie Dolson said that the Twitter rule cuts down on distractions during basketball season.
“I think social media is such a narcissistic thing,” Dolson said. “I think for us, it just takes away that attraction and makes us focus on what we’re doing and why we’re here in college, to play basketball, not go on social media and boast about ourselves.”
Auriemma said the American Athletic Conference, Connecticut’s new league, didn’t help get the Huskies ready for the NCAA Tournament.
“We got it by beating all those ACC teams,” said Auriemma, whose team beat Maryland and Duke this season.
The American ranked sixth among conferences in the RPI, while the Atlantic Coast Conference ranked second behind the Southeast Conference.
McGraw said the ACC competition helped make the Irish battle-ready for the NCAA Tournament, but Auriemma said that the schedule isn’t a major factor in preparing a team for a championship.
Auriemma said that in 1995, only two teams from the Big East were invited to play in the NCAA Tournament, and he was constantly reminded that his club wasn’t tournament ready like the Pac-12 or the SEC.
“I’ve had teams play in the best conference in the country in the Big East and not get to the Final Four, and I’ve had teams play in the old Big East where we won every game by 40 and win the national championship.”
Auriemma added that the ACC competition for Notre Dame didn’t match the level of former Big East play.
“I would venture to say Muffet played a lot better teams last year in the old Big East than she did this year,” Auriemma said. “Guarantee it.”
40 more minutes
Notre Dame starting forward Ariel Braker has been hobbled by injuries throughout her career. She’s underwent three knee surgeries, and dealt with an Achilles heel injury. She’s been held out of practice, and her minutes have been limited.
“It has been tough, and I will be done with basketball after this year,” Braker said. “It has been worth it going to the Final Fours all these years, but I don’t have legs left.”
Braker said she’s been doing all she can to get through her final season.
“The past couple of games, my position coach (Carol Owens) told me, you only have five more games left, and today she said, you only have 40 minutes left,” Braker said. “It is bittersweet, because I will miss playing, but I won’t be tearing apart my body and I will have fun watching.”
Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey is staying with the Irish, for now. Ivey, Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator, was mentioned as a possible candidate for the head coaching job at Minnesota.
Minnesota announced that it hired Virginia Commonwealth coach Marlene Stallings.
Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com