TAMPA — There is a reason that, after spending an afternoon dutifully answering scores of hefty questions about the women’s basketball rivalry between Connecticut and Notre Dame — questions about the intensity of the games, about the history of the series, about what it means to women’s basketball — Huskies guard Megan Walker seemed to snap out of her Final Four-media-day-induced trance.
“Does it mean something to us? We know what to say, and we answer the questions, but this definitely means something to us,” Walker said, her voice raising out of the camera-ready, even-keeled tone she had been using before. “We never want to go down against Notre Dame, and it’s because of what has come before us, the players, their battles, the chemistry between the two teams.”
Some of those players Walker referred to include Sue Bird, who heaved a famous buzzer beater in the 2001 Big East tournament; and Skylar Diggins, who helped lift Notre Dame to a Final Four win in 2011 that ended Maya Moore’s collegiate career; and Breanna Stewart, who began her takeover of women’s college basketball in yet another Final Four, in 2013.
There is rich, important history in the 50th iteration of Connecticut vs. Notre Dame, which will take place Friday night at Amalie Arena after No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 seed Oregon play the first national semifinal.
For Connecticut, the recent history is painful. Not the programs’ regular season matchup, an 89-71 Huskies win in December, but the last time these two met in the Final Four.
Notre Dame beat Connecticut in overtime in last year’s national semifinals on a buzzer beater by Arike Ogunbowale. It was the second year in a row the Huskies’ season ended with an overtime game in the Final Four.
“It’s kind of like the worst situation that you can have,” Connecticut all-American Napheesa Collier said. “Overtime, a last shot like that, it happened to us twice. It is really hard. It’s something that, our first year, we were like, ‘We need to use this, make ourselves better.’ Then we didn’t really take that to heart. We said it this year. You could see even from the summer, everyone just came in really focused, with a different mentality than we had the year before. Our team dynamic even this year is so much better.
“Especially being here now, about to play in that same game that we did those last two years, you know that in practice we have to be that much better and that much on top of things because we don't want that to happen again.”
Said Katie Lou Samuelson, Collier’s fellow senior leader: “It makes us, probably more than anyone, understand that there's only one thing guaranteed at a time.”
The Connecticut-Notre Dame series stretches back to 1996 but didn’t start to become a true rivalry until the Fighting Irish first beat the Huskies in 2001. Connecticut holds a 37-12 all-time lead, but the Final Four is different. In the national semifinals, Notre Dame has a 4-3 edge.
Both times Fighting Irish Coach Muffet McGraw captured national titles, in 2001 and 2018, she’s had to go through Connecticut and Geno Auriemma.
“I always think when the season starts, ‘Okay, no matter how far we go in the tournament, at some point, if we go far enough, we're going to have to play Notre Dame,’” Auriemma said. “It generally turns out that way.”
This time around, No. 1 seed Notre Dame (34-3) squares to face No. 2 seed Connecticut (35-2) with four of the five starters from last year’s national champions, plus forward Briana Turner, who has helped put the Fighting Irish fourth in the country in rebounds per game (44.03) and rebounding margin (plus-10.5).
Ogunbowale, a senior, returned for an encore after dominating the Final Four with back-to-back buzzer beaters to lead Notre Dame this season with 22.8 points per game. Overall, the Irish are deeper than they were last year after an injury-riddled season.
More importantly, they’ve matured as a group since that December meeting with Connecticut. McGraw spoke on a teleconference Wednesday about how earning the No. 1 ranking in the preseason weighed heavily on her team, how the season felt long. They met before Christmas and decided they weren’t having enough fun.
“We did some things a little bit differently,” McGraw said. “I think we just came in with a new attitude. I think that helped. Losing a couple games that you're not supposed to lose is really good at regaining your focus, so we were able to do that.”
The season has been a long one for Auriemma, too, and dotted with two losses, which counts as serious adversity at Connecticut. The Huskies were a No. 2 seed for the first time since 2006 and advanced to a record 12th consecutive Final Four anyway. Still, Auriemma is nervous.
“When you’re young, you’re trying to do something, you think nothing can stop you,” Auriemma said. “I think as you get older, you start to realize, ‘You know how many things could go wrong Friday night?’ You start getting more, you know — it’s like a golfer who has never missed a five-foot putt and they keep winning. Until when? Until they do. The next time they have a five-footer, they remember the one they missed. It’s still there even more so than it ever was in the beginning.”
Connecticut missed last year and the year before, and Auriemma has been telling his team all season to remember the feeling. The history matters.
“We might get beat. We might get beat tomorrow night,” Auriemma said. “But we’re not going to lose. They’re going to have to beat our asses. We’re not just going to lose because we’re afraid to lose.”