Connecticut guard Bria Hartley celebrates during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game against Stanford in Nashville, Tenn.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Women’s basketball came away a winner Sunday night. After a season-long buildup, the NCAA tournament will be decided by the perfect championship game.
The undefeated titans of the sport this season will meet Tuesday night in an historic championship game when UConn plays Notre Dame. It will mark the first time in NCAA basketball history that unbeaten teams will play for a title when the former Big East rivals face each other.
“It is pretty amazing,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw told The Associated Press after her team beat Maryland 87-61. “So many of the media and fans have been looking at this all season long. It’s great that we’ve made it this far.
“Both of us remaining undefeated. See who the best team is.”
Said UConn guard From Moriah Jefferson: “Now we can finally talk about it. That has been the talk of this whole tournament and I guess it is finally here.”
The teams didn’t play during the regular season this year for the first time since 1995 as Notre Dame moved to the ACC. That helped set up the championship showdown that will put the sport in the spotlight.
“It looked to me like as the season went on it almost looked like it was inevitable to happen,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was supposed to happen. Our sport doesn’t have enough significant moments. ... To have the spotlight on Tuesday on two teams that one is going to lose for the first time this year, it’s pretty remarkable when you think how hard it’s to do for one team much less two.”
Notre Dame (37-0) is one of the rare teams that has had success against the Huskies in recent history, winning seven of the past nine meetings, including beating UConn twice in the national semifinals. McGraw drew attention to that fact during the tournament selection show.
The Huskies (39-0) won the last one though, topping Notre Dame in the Final Four last season en route to the school’s eighth national championship. A UConn victory Tuesday night will be a record ninth for Auriemma, breaking a tie with Pat Summitt for most all-time in the women’s game. It will also cap the fifth perfect season for the Huskies and make them only the second team ever to go 40-0, joining Baylor which did it two seasons ago.
Auriemma has never lost a championship game.
Notre Dame will be trying for its second national championship. The Irish have had chances lately to win their first title since 2001, advancing to the national semifinals in four straight seasons. They lost in the championship game twice during that span.
They advanced to Tuesday night’s game with a convincing 87-61 victory over Maryland behind 28 points from senior All-American Kayla McBride.
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor.
Even without their star forward, the Irish dominated the Terrapins on the boards, outrebounding them in record fashion. Notre Dame had a 50-21 rebounding advantage, including a 19-4 mark on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game, shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.
They’ll need a similar effort against UConn and its imposing front line of Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson.
The Huskies got off to a sluggish start against Stanford before taking control in the second half in a 75-56 victory. They probably can’t afford the same thing to happen for a fourth straight game if they hope to win that record title.
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