Notebook: A kinder, gentler final for Notre Dame-UConn

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — Welcome to the kinder, gentler version of the NCAA women’s basketball national championship game.

Funny what a couple losses can do to ease the tension.

Last year, there was a very contentious undertone – heck, it was a downright overtone – between Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, as they verbally sparred on the eve of the battle of unbeatens.

After a while, the sniping got quite nasty. Sounded a lot like pro wrestling for a while.

That was then. Geno walked away with the title, while the Irish were left as bridesmaids again.

There’s a different vibe in the buildup to Tuesday night’s title game. UConn won’t be perfect, even if it wins. The Huskies lost to Stanford early. The Irish lost to Connecticut and Miami, so that’s off the table for them, too.

Without that pressure, everybody’s playing nice. Smiling. Talking about what a wonderful rivalry this is, and how good it is for the game.

Hardly incendiary fodder for glaring front-page headlines.

“Nobody likes to have fun more than me, when I can,” Auriemma said Tuesday. “That’s one reason why (his Connecticut team handles) things so well, because we don’t take ourselves so seriously.

“When it gets to be more than that, I’m not really comfortable with it. It didn’t seem like it was fun (last year). It’s really good right now.”

“We have a really good relationship,” McGraw said of her and Auriemma. “We see each other out recruiting. We talk on the road. He's the kind of guy that if you wanted to talk offense and I called him, we would sit down and talk about offense, recruiting or really anything that we wanted to.”

How did the players react to last year’s bickering?

“We don’t pay attention to it at all,” said Irish junior Michaela Mabrey. “We obviously know that it’s going on because we watch TV and follow the media. I don’t think that we pay attention to it. We’re all just young adults playing the game that we love. There’s always something funny about it. You get a laugh out of it but at the end of the day, it has nothing to do with us. They calmed down a little this year and took a step back to see that they both have great teams.”

The flip

It’s a unique player-coach relationship when the best story Jewell Loyd has of McGraw is focused around pancakes.


“During finals, she has us all over for dinner,” Loyd said. “(McGraw) likes to cook breakfast for dinner. She’s not the best cook, but we love her hospitality. She’s a mother to us. She’s always ready to play games.

“Her best thing (to cook) is hot chocolate, I don’t know if that’s cooking or not. She does pancakes.

“(Her husband Matt), now he is a good cook. She’s in the kitchen, but I’m not sure who’s doing the cooking.”

“It would definitely be my wife, you know that,” Matt said, deferring – with a smile – to Muffet as the cook. “We’ve been doing this for a long time now.

“It’s fun. It’s a good time (for the players). The secret is, keep my wife out of the kitchen – but keep that under your hat.”

When the players get their opportunity at the griddle, who’s the best?

Freshman Brianna Turner, a rather quiet, humble, team-first 6-foot-3 freshman, brazenly left no doubt.

“Me, Brianna Turner,” she said. “No questions asked, I’m the best.”

And, the secret?

“The flip,” Turner said. “It’s all in the wrist.”

Analyze this

Now that she has had time to digest – and, in the process, battle indigestion over – the final eight minutes of Sunday night’s escape from South Carolina, what was McGraw’s assessment?

Leading 64-52 with 7:51 to play, Notre Dame went 7 minutes and 35 seconds without scoring. During that stretch, a 13-0 South Carolina run, the Irish missed six layups, three jump shots, committed two turnovers and allowed the Gamecocks seven offensive rebounds.

“Honestly, we got really good shots.” McGraw said. “We missed a couple of point blank layups. We missed a couple of shots we normally make, and we didn't rebound. It was a little bit of both ends.

“When we were making our runs, we were holding them to one shot, scoring in transition. Then when we were missing shots and not getting rebounds, that was the difference in the game. I still felt pretty good because, execution wise, we were still getting the shots we wanted. Our problem at that point I thought was at the defensive end.”

Sudden factor

Given the way Irish junior Hannah Huffman had shut down Stanford’s 3-point ace Bonnie Samuelson in the Oklahoma City Regional, and then South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell in the final seconds Sunday night, she’s likely to be showing up on scouting reports, though her minutes are limited.

Bet that Auriemma knows who she is.

“It’s a shocker,” Huffman said laughing. “Who woulda thought?”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, right, and Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma before the women's basketball game inside Notre Dame Purcell Pavillion on Monday, March 4, 2013. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)