NEW ORLEANS — You got the feeling U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma didn’t like being so well known. Over-familiarity was the key to Notre Dame’s success against him in three previous meetings this season — Muffet McGraw seemed to coolly anticipate not just his schemes but also his moods and inflammatory tactics. They had almost 40 years of personal history, and there were no more secrets between them, nothing left to scout. So in this NCAA semifinal, he decided to see what sheer punch-in-the mouth aggression would do. Final score: 83-65 in favor of U-Conn.
“For 40 minutes we competed and we played about as hard as we’re capable of playing,” Auriemma said.
Auriemma and McGraw go all the way back to Philly in 1978 where they both emerged from the Catholic school culture that turns out basketball coaches like Austria does skiers. In three previous games this season she had checkmated him from the sideline, an opponent of equal knowledge and unbreakable composure, his impervious opposite in temperament. While he stomped and sweated and threatened, she stood still and doll-like on the sideline in her pencil skirts and stiletto heels.
It has long been one of Auriemma’s ploys to bait his opponents, to rile them with sarcasm or distract them with verbal shots, and then unleash teams that lord it on the floor with intimidating elegance and superior strategy. But the Fighting Irish were imperturbable, and unexploitable in winning the Big East this season. “It’s not about the X’s and O’s between us,” U-Conn.’s Kelly Faris said. “We know each other like it’s the back of our hand.”
The numbers in favor of the Irish were stark: They came into Sunday night’s NCAA semifinal winners of seven of their past eight meetings over the Huskies. Those stats allowed some to suggest that McGraw didn’t just know Auriemma’s tendencies; she was on the verge of owning him.
“I don’t really read anything that he says,” McGraw said in a pregame news conference on Saturday. “I think that helps. I try to stay away from anything that’s controversial. He would love to try to get some things going, I think. But it’s really not in my nature to go back and forth like that. . . . I think having Philly as a common denominator I think we both understand each other.”
Take for instance her reaction when she heard that Auriemma had used a Middlesex Chamber of Commerce speech two weeks ago to guarantee that his team wouldn’t drop another encounter with the Irish this season. “We’re not going to lose the next one,” he assured the audience.
Yes, McGraw answered calmly, she knew he had said it, and she made sure her team did too. But informed that he had given the Irish some bulletin board material, Auriemma just shrugged and shot back jauntily, “I’m glad I helped. I’ll always do whatever I can to motivate players. So whether they’re on my team or the other team, I just want to be known as a great motivator.”
Auriemma’s chippiness was based in the fact that not much had separated the two teams in their three previous meetings: the Irish had won a 73-72 decision on Jan. 5 in Storrs, a March 4 triple-overtime decision in South Bend, 96-87, and a nip-and-tuck affair March 12 in Hartford, 61-59, for the Big East title. Of the three it was the overtime loss that seemed to rankle Auriemma the most. For once, it was the Huskies who seemed a little emotionally destabilized down the stretch, with missed free throws in the first overtime that could have won it, only for Kayla McBride to nail a three-pointer for the Irish. Luck, not coaching skill, he implied, had won that one.
“I don’t know why I can’t think of that,” he said sarcastically. “One of these days I’ll have that play.”
But when he was finished with the snappy one-liners and digs, Auriemma showed a relaxed confidence as he leaned against a wall in the tunnel of New Orleans Arena on the evening before the game. One victory in the Final Four could erase all of the frustration, he pointed out. “I guess the short answer is: What happened in those other three doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
It was a tall, tall order to beat U-Conn. four times in a single season — and he knew it. “I think right now we have a pretty good idea of what they’re gonna do and I’m sure they have a great idea of what we’re gonna do,” he said. “And it just comes down to, are you gonna execute it, or not?”
The Huskies did more than execute – they imposed their physical will on the Irish on every possession. They did everything with a boxer’s pugnacity: cut hard, fouled hard. U-Conn. has always had offensive elegance, but in this game they also played like bowery boys.
“It was a physical game tonight,” Irish guard Skylar Diggins said. “You have to credit their D and pressure making us take quick shots.”
The two teams knew each other so well that it made the game almost ugly. The refs couldn’t keep up with all the shoving and checking and swiping. Post feeds were all but impossible. The action was frantic, and at every turn, the Huskies handled the contact better, while the Irish’ normally sweet shooters clanged shots off the rim. The elegant Diggins was 0 for 6 in the first half, and rushed at the basket hectically, unable to get clean looks. The ordinarily deadly McBride was just 1 for 8. As a team, the Irish went a wretched 2 for 24 to start the game and never really recovered. Diggins would finish just 3 for 15, and McBride was 5 for 20.
U-Conn. dug out a 10-point halftime margin with sheer muscle, led by senior guard Faris. She bumped Diggins, which yielded a steal and a layup that started their surge. She then drove and dished to freshman Breanna Stewart for a three, and followed that up with a slashing a layup through traffic just before the buzzer. The Huskies had ended the half with a 14-3 run.
“Well I’m glad it didn’t come down to the last minute,” Auriemma said afterward. “Because I didn’t want to screw it up again.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.