NASHVILLE — Well, Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw are not twin souls. We’ve learned that much in the back-and-forth between them. What would an NCAA championship game be without the background mood music of Auriemma’s mouth? Except, this time he wasn’t the one using the sharp words. At some point in the years and distance between their Philly childhoods and here, competition between Auriemma and McGraw became rivalry, then rivalry became insult, and insult finally turned into hate. At least on her end. Him? He’s too busy imitating Father Flanagan.
“Whoever thought I’d take the high road?” he said.
Things were perfectly calm, with the focus solely on the historical nature of Tuesday night’s matchup between No. 1 Connecticut(39-0) and No. 2 Notre Dame (37-0), the first national title game ever between two unbeaten teams, when McGraw let it slip there was no “civility” between the two coaches and programs. Then she went one step further. Asked if there is actually hate between them, she replied, “That’s a fair assumption.”
McGraw — tiny, ghost pale, and outwardly prim — is an unlikely source for such biting words. Was she trying to get under Auriemma’s skin, or engaging in gamesmanship? Perhaps to an extent. She also used her news conference to work the refs in advance.
“I think it’s amazing: They committed the fewest fouls in the nation,” she said. “So, they can be a really physical team and yet not manage to foul.”
But there was no mistaking the genuine antipathy the Fighting Irish have for the Huskies, and that it will be an underpinning to a game that hardly needed any more factors to make it interesting.
“I don’t know; I think we already don’t like each other, so that adds to it too,” Kayla McBride said.
The background: U-Conn. has lost just 11 games in the past six seasons, but a half-dozen of those have come against Notre Dame. The Irish have a 9-7 record against the Huskies, including three regular season wins last season before the Big East conference dissolved. Two years ago, the Irish knocked Huskies out of the Final Four in overtime. Last year the Huskies got revenge in a rematch in the national semifinals. Yet McGraw says Auriemma has never shown the proper regard for her achievements.
“We don’t have a relationship,” McGraw said. “I think that got lost. When we were in the same conference, I think there was a modicum of it, but I think after beating them and not feeling any respect from that, we lost something.”
One obvious source of the hostility is an argument over scheduling that began last year with the breakup of the Big East. McGraw said Notre Dame was willing to hold almost any date open in order to make a meeting happen this year. Instead, she claims, U-Conn. ducked the game. Auriemma shot back that it wasn’t true, Notre Dame was the one doing the avoiding.
“It’s not nice for Muffet to fib during Lent,” he said.
McGraw was so aggravated that she had her media relations department issue a formal statement: “The recent published reports that Notre Dame is not interested in playing Connecticut in the near future are completely false, extremely disappointing and, frankly, baffling.”
The schools eventually agreed to meet next season, but the tension has simmered on. On Saturday both squads and coaches were together in the same room when McGraw won an award for coach of the year, and U-Conn.’s Breanna Stewart won for player of the year. According to McGraw, there was a tinderbox feel to the affair.
“I think there was definitely tension in the room,” she said.
Asked to respond to McGraw’s comments, and what the source of her anger might be, Auriemma started slowly. “I don’t know,” he said. But then he ramped up. Auriemma has always wielded his sarcasm like a knife, and it’s at least worth noting that this is not the first time a peer has had an issue with him; before McGraw there was Pat Summitt.
At least some of McGraw’s wrath, he suggested, was a chip on the shoulder. U-Conn. has won eight national championships. While Notre Dame has won seven of the past nine meetings between them, it has only one championship.
“If you are going to come in and try to live in that air, then you need to deal with it,” he said.
Pregame skirmishing and feelings that run high are a normal part of competing regularly against each other for championships, as far as Auriemma is concerned. Collegiality suffers when so much is at stake. Three of their past nine meetings have gone to overtime. And this is the fourth consecutive year they are facing off in the Final Four.
“Once you start playing each other two, three, four times a year, it gets pretty intense for lots of reasons,” he said. “It’s only natural. It’s only natural.
“We’ve got two really, really good teams. Forget the other stuff. The other stuff is such nonsense. Really, that’s nonsense. I could sit here and list 1,000 coaches that don’t interact with each other whose rivalries are intense. This is a function of women’s basketball. Sometimes we act like girls. Like we’re supposed to go to dinner every night. We’re supposed to play each other, try to beat each other’s brains in, try to win a national championship and compete like hell, Muffet and Geno, and then we’re supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine? That [stuff] is just not going to happen.”
And it was irrelevant, at least as far as he was concerned. What mattered was the clash between two titanic programs, offensive juggernauts who were not only ranked No. 1 and No. 2, but also lead the nation in field-goal percentage. “It’s superfluous,” he said.
Then he got in one last shot, grinning: “We use big words at Connecticut too.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.