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Nothing’s better than UConn vs. Notre Dame

It’s a rivalry that never fails to thrill, and Friday night’s nail-biter of a semifinal is no exception.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, right, hugs coach Muffet McGraw after the Irish defeat UConn 81-76 in the Final Four. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published Apr. 6
Updated Apr. 6

TAMPA ― If you were walking by Amalie Arena on Friday night and were struck in the head by a record book that was thrown out the window, we apologize.

Notre Dame and UConn were playing.

The Red Sox and Yankees need each other. North Carolina and Duke need each other. Alabama and Clemson need each other. I’m sure in some ways, especially on birthdays, North Korea and South Korea need each other.

Notre Dame and UConn. They need each other.

Guess what?

We need them too.

That was Friday night at the Final Four, as the top two women’s basketball powerhouses in the country rocked the house for the 50th time in their ferocious history, for the eighth time at the NCAA Tournament ― in fact, for the eighth time at the Final Four, which tells you something.

These two always stand in each other’s way. That’s the way the world is.

Everything was on the line Friday, as usual.

Cheers or tears? What was it going to be?

It was going to be defending national champion Notre Dame, 81-76, roaring back in the second half in an instant classic. The Irish beat the Huskies in the national semifinals again. They’re 5-3 against UConn in the tournament.

It all began with the perfunctory dead-mackerels handshake between coaches. Did Notre Dame’s stomach-churning Muffet McGraw even look at UConn open-collared legend and provocateur Geno Auriemma? McGraw recently described Auriemma as a “bully.”

Play ball!

That they did. And it was marvelous.

With all due respect to 36-1 Baylor, which outlasted upstart Oregon in Friday’s first game, the second semifinal was the real national championship game. Everyone in the building knew it. It lived up to that billing, see-saw, 26 lead changes, six in the last three minutes alone, back and forth, heavyweights and haymakers, no quarter asked for, none given, big plays and big players everywhere.

It wasn’t last year’s national semifinal, when Notre Dame shooting star Arike Ogunbowale beat UConn at the horn on the way to the national title game (an Ogunbowale shot won that one, too). But the Big O led the way this time, too, with 14-fourth quarter points to end UConn hopes for a 12th national title.

Don’t think Auriemma’s Huskies liked that. Don’t think McGraw’s Fighting Irish didn’t like that, a lot. Maybe in another time and place, if they weren’t chasing the same exact thing, McGraw and Auriemma could be friends.

I vote maybe not.

There were no true extra-curriculars, like when UConn trounced Notre Dame at South Bend in December, which featured rough play from Ogunbowale, who clothes-lined UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield, then jawed at Auriemma. McGraw and her team later issued an apology to Irish fans and alumni. But not to Auriemma and the Huskies.

Think this is good for women’s basketball?

“Yes, because you’re asking questions about it, you’re writing a story about it,” ESPN studio analyst and former Georgia coach Andy Landers said the day before Notre Dame and UConn rocked. “Otherwise, nobody ever hears us, there wouldn’t be anything in the news today about women’s basketball.”

Notre Dame, a two-time national champion, has chased and caught UConn. UConn-Tennessee, Auriemma against the great Pat Summitt, was once the marquee matchup in women’s hoops. But those schools played only 22 times. Notre Dame-UConn is half a hundred, filled with tournament battles, conference throwdowns, animus and transcendent talent and coaching. McGraw used UConn as a measuring stick. The Irish measure up at last.

Who needs civility?

In 2014, Notre Dame and UConn became the first NCAA championship matchup of undefeated teams. UConn won that night. The Huskies beat the Irish for the title the next year, too, here in Tampa. Don’t think Notre Dame liked that. Don’t think UConn didn’t like that. Don’t think Auriemma doesn’t love giving the needle. Don’t think McGraw doesn’t hate losing more than she likes winning.

So her team went out and won, avenging that December loss. Notre Dame came from nine points down in the fourth quarter and won behind Ogunbowale’s late scoring frenzy, as she hit big shots and free throws.

“She really came alive in the second half,” McGraw said.

Don’t forget the Irish forwards, Jessica Shepard’s 20 points and 13 rebounds and Brianna Turner’s 15 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.

“They had more good players play better more than we did,” Auriemma said. “That’s just the way the world is.”

The world again belonged to Notre Dame on Friday. It’s on to championship game for the Irish on Sunday night against Baylor.

Me?

I can’t wait for Round 51.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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