ANOTHER LAST DANCE
It didn’t take long for Muffett McGraw to let the cat out of the bag. “We’ll have the same mindset we did for both the games this year”, said the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach about tonight’s Big East Tournament championship matchup with UConn at the XL Center, as the top two seeds get ready to square off in their final game as Big East opponents. “It’s tough to beat a good team three times”, McGraw went on, “So I think it’s going to be another war. The outcome will get us ready for the NCAA Tournament whether we win or lose.” The interesting thing about those comments from McGraw was that no one asked her about facing UConn in the final. The question put to her was about having made the Big East Tournament championship game five times previously, only to come away empty each time, including last year’s loss to UConn, an 18 time tournament champ. When McGraw offered her assessment of facing UConn for a third time this season the Huskies had yet to tip off their semi final game with Syracuse. Without being able to guarantee a matchup with UConn McGraw couldn’t wait to get to it. Her feelings mirror those of the rest of the women’s basketball nation, a nation that hungered for a premier rivalry after Pat Summitt called a halt to the series that defined women’s basketball for a decade and a half and filled arenas during the regular season with fans hoping they were charting a course to UConn and Tennessee in the final four, best case scenario, in the national championship game. They don’t come much better than 2000 in Philly. UConn didn’t have to look any further than their own conference for the rivalry the nation was pining for as Notre Dame surfaced as one of the premier programs in the nation, like UConn, a perennial final four and national championship contender, with annual renewals built right into the conference schedule. No disgruntled coach could make this rivalry go away. That would take all the forces of conference realignment. To today’s UConn players this is the game Tennessee once was to Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti, Shea Ralph, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones. “After the whole era of Tennessee-UConn everyone is talking about this game”, said UConn junior center Stefanie Dolson, “But we focus more on ourselves as Connecticut as a team, rather than Connecticut-Notre Dame.” The rivalry doesn’t necessarily end here, there is always a possibility the two teams could meet well down the NCAA Tournament road, when there are even bigger rewards to be reaped, but beyond tonight there are no guarantees as the final game in the history of women’s Big East basketball as we have known it becomes the climactic game in what is probably the premier series in the entire nation. No one can stop the two teams from scheduling each other in the future but as Jim Boeheim pointed out when his Syracuse Orangemen played UConn for the final time in the most storied series in men’s Big East hoops, true rivalries are within your own conference. So for UConn and Notre Dame it ends here. The Big East saved the best for last. Muffett McGraw, for one, is eager to get it on. With a comment from the sports world,
I’m Scott Gray.