TAMPA — When Connecticut and Notre Dame, two perennial Final Four contenders, met late in the regular season, the Huskies avenged their 2018 national semifinal loss to the Irish with an 89-71 victory in South Bend, Ind.
But as with any matchup between the bitter rivals, it didn’t happen without a side of drama.
In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale verbally sparred with Huskies coach Geno Auriemma on the sideline, comments that earned Ogunbowale a technical foul and UConn a pair of free shots.
“Competitiveness comes out, and as we’ve seen almost every time we’ve played them, people get frustrated,” UConn forward Napheesa Collier said. “Emotions get really high, and that’s what makes it so fun to watch.”
Friday night, spectators at Amalie Arena will get to see what happens next in this storied series, as UConn (35-2) and Notre Dame (34-3) meet once again in the Final Four — the eighth time the squads have squared off in a national semifinal or championship in the past 20 years.
And the drama of the rivalry isn’t limited to the basketball court.
Jabs between Auriemma and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw have been highly publicized over the years, the latest dagger coming from Auriemma on March 31 when he learned that McGraw planned to no longer hire male assistants.
“I hope she sends a thank you to all those guys that used to be on her staff that got her all those good players that won a championship,” he said.
Some might call it a distraction from the game. Others say it simply adds fuel to the fire.
“It definitely makes it a little more spicy,” said former WNBA player and basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo. “Everything has more flavor when it has more spice. And Coach Auriemma and Muffet McGraw going back and forth with their comments makes things more spicy. That’s just another subplot that adds to the great rivalry.”
Despite the words that have been exchanged in the past, McGraw doesn’t shy away from dishing out credit where it’s due.
The disparity between the programs has shrunk in recent years — Notre Dame has appeared in the Final Four seven of the past 10 years, while UConn hasn’t missed the national semifinal since 2006. But much earlier than that, when the teams played in the same conference, the Huskies couldn’t be touched.
“In the early days of the Big East, they were the team to beat, they were the team to measure yourself against,” said McGraw, who has been the head coach at Notre Dame since 1987. “They were the team that you just looked at what they were doing and you said, ‘That’s where I want to get to.’ ”
Now Notre Dame has a chance to further prove that it has arrived.
The Irish have won four of their seven previous Final Four or national championship matchups with UConn, which owns 11 national titles. The Huskies, though, already found a way to beat them once this season in a game Notre Dame has reviewed over and over again in hopes of improving their mistakes the second time around.
“I think anytime you lose, you go back and you look at absolutely everything that went on in the game — offense, defense, what did we do wrong, substitutions, man, zone, what did we play,” McGraw said. “That’s why you play those games early in the year, because you want to know what your weaknesses are. You want to know how teams are going to attack you.”
For UConn, that’ll likely be with Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, seniors who average nearly 40 points per game. But Notre Dame’s got its own veteran leadership and Ogunbowale’s clutch, buzzer-beating shots, which she used twice last year to carry Notre Dame to the title.
But perhaps most important of all, the Irish have the confidence that they can compete against a team that has many more where that came from.
“Notre Dame doesn’t ever play scared of us,” Samuelson said. “A lot of times, you can feel teams be scared of the name UConn. That’s something (Notre Dame has) never had an issue with, they’ve never felt that way, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.”
Legends on the court
A closer look at Notre Dame and UConn’s coaches:
Born: Pottsville, Pa.
Alma mater: St. Joseph’s University (Pa.)
Record at Notre Dame: 834-23, since 1987
Annual salary: $1 million (est.)
National titles: 2 (2001, 2018)
Final Fours: 9
Honors: three-time Naismith Coach of Year, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2017)
Born: Montella, Italy
Alma mater: West Chester University (Pa.)
Record at UConn: 1,062-138, since 1985
Annual salary: $2.4 million (est.)
National titles: 11 (1995, 2000, 2002-04, 2009, 2010, 2013-16)
Final Fours: 19
Honors: Eight-time Naismith Coach of Year, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2006)
Head to head
All-time series: UConn leads 37-12
Final Four: Notre Dame leads 4-3
NCAA championship games: UConn leads 2-0 (2014, 2015)
Last meeting: UConn 89-71 (Dec. 2, 2018)
Last NCAA Tournament meeting: Notre Dame 91-89, OT, Final Four (March 30, 2018)
Last Tampa meeting: UConn 63-53, NCAA championship game (April 7, 2015)