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NCAA women's basketball final: It's not your mother's rivalry

UConn’s Breanna Stewart is hoping to get a third straight national championship hug from her coach, Geno Auriemma.
UConn’s Breanna Stewart is hoping to get a third straight national championship hug from her coach, Geno Auriemma.
Published Apr. 7, 2015

TAMPA — Brianna Turner grew up watching women's college basketball, yet she's too young to remember the days when the most intense rivalry was Connecticut-Tennessee.

Instead, Turner is part of the generation that has watched a new rivalry — UConn vs. Notre Dame — develop in the sport.

Tonight, Notre Dame (36-2) and UConn (37-1) meet for the second straight year in the women's national championship game. UConn is in the title game for the fifth time in the past seven seasons, seeking its 10th overall title.

"It's super exciting," said Turner, a Notre Dame freshman from Pearland, Texas, who watched UConn defeat Notre Dame on TV last year. "I grew up seeing the Final Fours. I went to the Final Four in San Antonio a couple of years ago, and I was thinking, 'Wow this is awesome. I want to be able to do that.' That's one of the reasons I came to Notre Dame, to be able to compete in Final Fours. This is what I wanted my whole life."

For the multiple All-Americans who will take the floor tonight at Amalie Arena, this is the rivalry they've grown up with — or helped develop.

It intensified in 2011 when Notre Dame started to win. From March 2005 to March 2011, UConn won 12 in a row. Since 2011, Notre Dame is 7-7 in head-to-head meetings, and during that span the Irish have win streaks of three and four at different times.

"I think because we were able to beat them a couple of times, that's what made it the rivalry it is," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I don't think you can have a rivalry if you never win. I think it's become such a great rivalry that it's a game I really enjoy because it's the two best teams right now going at it and battling."

Notre Dame is making its fourth appearance in the title game in five years, but has not walked away with the title since 2001. The Irish said ending that drought against rival UConn would make it extra special.

"Being here three times and not winning anything at the end of it is draining," said junior guard Michaela Mabrey, whose team also lost to UConn in the 2013 national semifinals. "I think this would just mean everything to us, and everything to Coach and the whole Notre Dame community."

Tonight's game is a rematch of the 2014 title game, which UConn won 79-58. The Irish played without their best player — Natalie Achonwa — who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the national semifinal game. The Irish made it back with a starting lineup that includes a freshman and two sophomores.

"To say that we've come a long way I think is a little bit of an understatement," McGraw said.

The chance to add to the history and legacy of this series isn't lost on these players.

"I think being able to be a part of this rivalry that's been built is something that's really special," UConn senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis of Anaheim Hills, Calif., said. "I definitely didn't realize how great it would be when I came in my freshman year. But being able to be a part of something that's exciting for everyone to watch in women's basketball, it's special."

Although Notre Dame is in its second season in the ACC, the former Big East rivals met in December with UConn earning a 76-58 victory. Notre Dame was without Turner in that game (shoulder injury). Both sides expect familiarity to play a key role tonight.

"They're a lot like us and I think that's why they've had success against us, that they have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and program," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We give them problems like other teams in the country don't, and they give us problems like other teams in the country don't. …

"I'm glad we're playing in (tonight's) game, but it's not going to be any fun. They're really hard to play against."

Contact Antonya English at aenglish@tampabay.com. Follow@TBTimes_Gators.