UConn vs. Notre Dame, One Last Time

In the greatest rivalry in women's college basketball history, UConn and Tennessee played 22 times in the 12 years between 1995 and 2007.

For UConn and Notre Dame, this will be 14 times in three years and 55 days. This will be 11 times in two years and two months.

UConn and Notre Dame have played so many times since 2010 that we know all 304,128 @names of Skylar Diggins' Twitter followers. They've played so many times, heck, Muffet McGraw has run out of leather skirts to wear. They've played so many times that even Geno Auriemma has run out of barbs to throw at the Golden Dome.

"This rivalry with UConn," McGraw said last week in South Bend after the Irish beat UConn in triple overtime, "is the best in the country."

Yes, it became exactly that. Yet after the teams meet for the Big East tournament championship Tuesday at the XL Center, the rivalry will not be the same.

Our loss.

"There's not a whole lot of nostalgia going on in conference realignment," Auriemma said Monday night after UConn had beaten Syracuse 64-51 in the semifinals. "I don't think anybody goes to the meetings and goes, 'You know, for old-time sake, I think we should do that.'"

Auriemma's dead-on. Dead-on. I've had so much trouble getting all sentimental about the final days of the real Big East. Money rules. Greed rules. And I hate fake schmaltz. Having said that, I'm rooting for an epic game, a repeat of last week's three-overtime game when nobody wanted to go home — for old-time sake between two rivals who have played each other so many times they're sick of each other.

Oh, they will play again at some point. Chances are good that it will be as soon as the Final Four in New Orleans. Yet until UConn gets into the ACC alongside Notre Dame — and that, folks, is the biggest "until" of all — it won't be the same.

This is the last Big East tournament in Hartford. This is the last Big East tournament as we know it. The CYO has bought the name, if not all the memories. And this is the last Big East game between UConn and Notre Dame. I'm rooting for an epic.

The glory of this rivalry was not in the planned pairing of two nonconference powers. Those series come and go. The glory of this rivalry has been in two league schools periodically rising together among the top five in the nation, playing some unforgettable games over a stretch of seasons and then Notre Dame slipping back a few notches.

When the rivalry peaks — like between 2001-2005 and 2010-2013 — it is as much Yankees-Red Sox as it is UConn-Tennessee. They play an awful lot, a frightening amount, and there are some incredible games. Like last week, like the 2012 Final Four, like the 2001 Big East tournament final.

Some quick math shows that the Yankees, including the postseason, played 54 of their 509 games against the Red Sox between 2010 and 2012. That's 10.6 percent. The Huskies, meanwhile, will be playing Notre Dame for the 11th time in 109 games over the past three seasons. That's 10.1 percent.

"In the NCAA Tournament, you much rather play someone else," McGraw said after Notre Dame beat Louisville 83-59 in the semis. "In the league, you're going to come up against [the Huskies] if you want to get the championshp. It will be interesting when the league changes next year that we won't have to play them three times in a year. That could be refreshing."

The teams will not play next season, at least not unless it's in the NCAA Tournament. We said the same thing about Tennessee when Pat Summitt did a stupid, petty thing and pulled the plug on the series. Six years have passed without another meeting. McGraw has said she wants to continue playing, but she likes to add, playfully, "not three times a year."

It is the familiarity, of course, that brings the irritation, the scabs to be picked. After Diggins lifted Notre Dame to victory at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 5, she strutted around the court. Afterward, she said, "A lot of people are afraid of the name on the front of the [UConn] jersey. We aren't anymore." If the best player for Baylor or Stanford had said that, it wouldn't have carried the same emotional import.

There was a time when Notre Dame was so much more vulnerable. After a loss to UConn in February 2000, McGraw teared up in the XL Center during her postgame remarks. At that point, she was 0-11 against UConn. Some might have mistaken those tears for fragility. They wear tears of resolve.

She took Notre Dame to the national championship in 2001. And that sparked a period in which the Irish won four of nine games against UConn. The best sign of the rivalry popped up on Jan. 15, 2001, in South Bend. It read, "You can't handle the Ruth." And UConn couldn't handle Ruth Riley that day when Notre Dame finally beat the Huskies. Sue Bird, however, would dribble the length of the Gampel court to score at the buzzer and give UConn the 2001 Big East tournament victory. That one was followed by Notre Dame erasing a 16-point UConn lead to win by 15 in the Final Four in St. Louis. I remember talking to a freshman named Diana Taurasi in the locker room after she shot 1 of 15. Closest I've ever saw the most confident basketball player in the world to being shaken.

Yet the series would lapse back into another period of UConn domination. Between March 7, 2005 and March 8, 2011, the Huskies reeled off 12 successive victories. Only one was by fewer than nine points.

"After we won in 2001, we weren't a Top Ten team and they were a No. 1 team," McGraw said. "That had a lot to do with it. We're better now. Our recruiting is better. Our team is better."

The three-overtime game last week. The overtime game in Denver last year when Brittany Mallory hit two three-pointers — man, those are unforgettable, and now Notre Dame has beaten UConn six of seven. Nobody beats UConn six of seven.

Through all of this, there have been certain constants. McGraw always seems to have some sharpshooting guard and they all seem to be named Sheila or maybe it's Beth or Alicia. She always seems to have a couple of bruisers up front who play with more guts than the football team did under Charlie Weis. Becca Bruszewski was one of those bruisers, and she emphatically denied the one act that could have turned the familiarity into outright contempt. Contrary to what a UConn source told some in the Connecticut media last year, she insisted to the South Bend Tribune that she never opened the UConn locker room door in Indianapolis after the 2011 Final Four win and shouted, "It must suck to be you." She's right. What really sucks is that UConn isn't in the ACC.

That sentiment led to Auriemma, foreseeing the collapse of the Big East because of football, directing his frustrations at Notre Dame at the league's 2011 media day, "The only thing you're sure of is they don't play [football] in our league and never want to play in our league. For a lot of us, it's a huge problem. … I'm pissed about it."

Notre Dame has won back-to-back regular season titles. Notre Dame has won back-to-back Final Four matchups and is 7-4 in games when both teams are ranked in the Top 5. Notre Dame also has never won a Big East tournament title.

After her game, Diggins said she didn't have a hatred for UConn. "Distaste," was her word.

"We have seven national championships," Auriemma said, slamming the last word. "They have one. I'd have a distaste, too."

One last time. Let's hope it's an epic.

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