— Not often in the championship era of UConn women's basketball has a program, certainly not one from the Big East, cast such an annoying shadow on the Huskies as Notre Dame has since the spring of 2011.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma is ordinarily not a fan of statistics. But here's one you figure has his attention, simply because of its uniqueness during his 28-year run: After losing 12 straight to UConn dating to 2005, Notre Dame has won four of the past five games. Those four wins constitute half its all-time wins over the Huskies in 37 games since 1996.
But this streak includes two monumental wins, national semifinal games in 2011 and 2012 that propelled the Irish to back-to-back championship games. The Irish victories cost UConn a chance to win three or four consecutive championships. Notre Dame also won both regular season games in 2011-12 before UConn recovered in last year's Big East championship game.
"It has given us a great motivation to do what we can to beat every team," Stefanie Dolson said. "We want to get back to the place we were last year."
Four out of five? Yep, that's a trend, short but definable.
"I don't think that sting ever goes away," UConn guard Bria Hartley said. "You could have won two national championships; particularly since it happened against the same team. But this is a new team, a new season."
"Playing them so often is fun, but it is also difficult," Dolson said. "You know so much about each other. It just comes down to how hard you want to work, how tough you want to be."
They meet again in South Bend on March 4, the final day of the regular season. And they likely could meet again in the Big East championship game on March 12.
"It is very fitting that we play them in the first conference game and the last one," Auriemma said.
Both programs are on major rolls. The Huskies are back from a successful West Coast trip that included a historic 61-35 bashing of Stanford, which came to the game ranked No. 1 for six straight weeks.
"That game was an anomaly," Auriemma said. "Let's put it this way, I don't expect this game to end up 61-35.
"And I don't think the team that loses is going to feel like it just lost the Big East championship. That is for sure. … But if you are 1-0, that is even better."
The Irish have won six straight since their 12-point loss to Baylor on Dec. 5. And while UConn was burying Oregon on Dec. 31, the Irish were setting a program-record with 128 points against St. Francis (Pa.), a game in which All-America guard Skylar Diggins took just four shots for seven points, but had 14 assists.
Diggins and Hartley played together on USA Basketball's 3x3 gold medal team in Greece last summer, along with Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike and former UConn guard Ann Strother. Diggins and Hartley were roommates.
"[Diggins is] a great person," Hartley said. "And very funny."
Along with Diggins, likely to be among the top three picks in the 2013 WNBA draft, the Irish return juniors Kayla McBride (15.3 ppg.) and Natalie Achonwa, who played this summer for Canada's Olympic team. Notre Dame has also introduced talented freshman guard Jewell Loyd, who already has been the Big East's freshman of the week twice.
"Our coach on the USA Basketball U-17 team called [Loyd] "The Microwave" because of the way she would heat up so quickly," Breanna Stewart said.
Auriemma sees the ways Notre Dame's team has changed since last season.
"Natalie [Achonwa] got a lot of experience playing in the Olympics. She is a lot better than she was two years ago and is better than she was last year," Auriemma said. "And Jewell has made a huge difference. She is one of the best freshmen in the country, and has added an awful lot because Notre Dame did lose a lot [including WNBA picks Dev Peters and Natalie Novosel].
"Everybody knew that McBride was a great player in high school and she was great during their run [to the Final Four]. They have a lot of pieces in place. Their depth is going to depend on how well their freshmen keep improving but I am not surprised."
After this year, Notre Dame-UConn might be a rarity as opposed to a cherished tradition. The programs have played 11 times in the past two seasons and each game has been worth its admission price.
But if Notre Dame leaves for the Atlantic Coast Conference after this season, and the Catholic 7 remain in the Big East for at least next season, there will be scheduling problems and the Huskies and Irish will have to figure out a way to play in the regular season, something both seem inclined to do.