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Perfection on the line

By John Altavilla
McClatchy-Tribune
NASHVILLE — It is a sport that appears to struggle with its identity and direction, one prone to frequent course shifts in the effort to find its place in a world that doesn’t pay much attention to women’s college basketball.
Tuesday will not be that kind of day because the NCAA Tournament stages the kind of national championship game that has never been played in history.
“Our sport probably doesn’t have enough significant moments,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So to have the spotlight on two teams, knowing that one of them is going to lose for the first time, well, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Notre Dame (37-0) and UConn (39-0), longtime conference rivals in the Big East, members of the lack of admiration society, certainly the best teams in the game today, will play for the trophy at the Bridgestone Arena.
“Whenever you have the two best teams in America playing there is going to be a lot more interest than there normally would be,” Auriemma said. “That it is Notre Dame-Connecticut, the women’s basketball fan will have an interest, as will the casual fan. Those who have no interest at all may tune in to see what’s going on.
“All of that is important, all of that is good in terms of taking the game where we need it to go. There needs to be more rivalries like this where the intensity level and talent is so high. People need to see it and I’m happy they will on a pretty big stage.”
And there is no fear from South Bend, where the Irish have grown accustomed to beating UConn.
“I think a lot of people go into a game against UConn and see the jerseys and think they have already lost. I don’t think we are like that,” Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride said. “We have a certain swag to us. We already don’t like each other, so that probably adds to it, too. You know it’s going to be competitive, you know it’s going to go down to the wire, intense. That’s something we like to do.”
This will be the first time that two unbeaten teams, the only unbeaten teams in the breadth of sport, will ever play for the championship. And the arena could not be more charged than it will be as Auriemma chases his second straight national championship and women’s record ninth.
“From a historical standpoint, this is going to be pretty cool,” said UConn’s Stefanie Dolson, who along with Bria Hartley will conclude their All-America careers. “But you can’t afford to focus on the hype surrounding the game. It will be a tough game with Notre Dame. It always is.”
Since UConn’s loss to the Irish in the 2011 national semifinals, Notre Dame has won seven of the past nine, including three of four last year, their final together as conference foes.
At some point during that time, the relationship of the programs and head coaches has taken a decidedly Pat Summitt-Geno route.
On Monday, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was asked about the perception the programs don’t like each other anymore, and did not deny it.
“I think we’re past of point [of regaining civility],” she said.
Auriemma did not back down, pointing to what he perceives to be McGraw’s changing personality in the wake of her success.
“Why is she angry? I don’t know. You have to ask her. I haven’t changed in 25 years,” Auriemma said. “People that know me understand I haven’t changed. How I run my program hasn’t changed, the respect we have for everyone else hasn’t changed.
“We think we are the best basketball team in the country, but we don’t flaunt it. But a funny thing happens to people once they start beating us.”
They will play each other again as nonconference opponents for the next two seasons, beginning Dec. 6 at Notre Dame. There is no guarantee beyond that.
But this will not be fought in the debate hall. It will be contested by some of the most talented players in the game, five named WBCA All-Americans last week.
UConn’s Breanna Stewart and McBride are first-team All-Americans; Stewart the Associated Press player of the year. McGraw is the AP coach of the year.
The teams soared through the regular season and conference tournaments, dealing with and conquering season-ending injuries.
In Monday’s national semifinal against Maryland, the Irish responded for the first time to the loss of senior center Natalie Achonwa to an ACL injury by crushing the Terps on the boards, outrebounding them, 50-21 (19-4 on the offensive boards).
“Our focus again will be on rebounding and boxing out,” Notre Dame junior Markisha Wright said.
Meanwhile, Auriemma’s respect for Notre Dame’s team is immense.
“They are, far and away, the best team that I have seen this year,” Auriemma said. “There is no matchup for Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd [ND’s leading scorer]. I don’t think anyone in the country has figured out how to guard them. And I am not sure we will be able to guard them, either.
“They know what we do. We know what they do. It’s going to come down to this: If one team shoots 55 percent from the field, there is no way the other team wins.”