Frequency, familiarity fueled rivalry
Connecticut, Notre Dame played 11 games in the past three seasons
Considering it feels as if colleges roll through conferences the way JoS. A. Bank rolls through suit sales, perhaps now is not the time to commit fully to a final eulogy to the basketball rivalry between Notre Dame and Connecticut.
"Until we meet again" might well be a safer sentiment than "parting is such sweet sorrow."
But Notre Dame's decision to relocate from the Big East to the ACC brings at least a temporary halt to at the moment the best rivalry in women's basketball, the rivalry that in recent years at least partially papered over the hole in the schedule left by Connecticut and Tennessee. And even if the Fighting Irish and Huskies continue their series as nonconference opponents, it won't be the same rivalry we saw play out in moments that spanned Sue Bird's shot in the 2001 Big East tournament to Natalie Novosel's layup in the Final Four a few short months ago.
Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but proximity makes the passion stronger.
This isn't a rivalry of geography, with more than 800 miles separating two campuses in distinctly different regions. It isn't a rivalry that began between equals. Both programs now hold places among the elite, sure, but Connecticut won the first 11 times the teams played, and it did so by double digits in all but one of those meetings, from the time Notre Dame joined the Big East in the 1995-96 season until midway through the 2000-01 season (by contrast, Connecticut and Tennessee split their first 10 meetings).
Even now, after the most competitive stretch in the history of the rivalry, the Huskies hold a lopsided 29-8 advantage in the all-time series.
It is a rivalry of repetition. What makes it special is precisely how frequently it occurs and how familiar each is with the other, each time someone stumbles or rises to the occasion, setting up the next act after only a short intermission. No team this side of Tennessee stood up to Connecticut in big games more often than Notre Dame (three times in Final Fours) because no team had been knocked down by the bully on the block so many times.
And as much as the rivalry owes its origin to the 2000-01 season (chronicled well in Jeff Goldberg's "Bird at the Buzzer") -- when Bird's game-winning shot in the Big East tournament was sandwiched between Notre Dame wins that ultimately gave the Fighting Irish the national championship and validated their program -- it was never better than it was the past three seasons.
Between Jan. 16, 2010, and April 1, 2012, Notre Dame and Connecticut played 11 times. That's as many games as Duke and Connecticut have played in the history of those two programs and more times than Notre Dame has played in-state non-rival Indiana. The Huskies and Fighting Irish met four times in each of the past two seasons, including a pair of meetings in the Final Four and a pair of meetings in the Big East tournament championship games.
Winners of just four games ever against the Huskies when the ball went up in a national semifinal April 3, 2011, the Fighting Irish won four of the next five meetings between the two sides.
Baylor and Texas A&M fans, themselves smarting over a rivalry lost to realignment, will point out that two of the past three seasons, including both of those in which the Big East rivals met four times, ended with neither Connecticut nor Notre Dame cutting down the nets after the final game. That their games ultimately weren't those that decided the title in some ways only underscores the point. The rivalry mattered for its own sake.
It had its own narrative, not greater than that of the seasons it spanned but in some ways independent of them.
In the first of those 11 games the past three seasons, Maya Moore and Tina Charles each topped 20 points in a 24-point win, the biggest margin of victory in the series in eight years and the seventh win in a row in the series for Connecticut on its way to a 39-0 season. Meanwhile, freshman Skylar Diggins totaled just six points on 2-of-13 shooting for Notre Dame.
By the last game in the run, Moore and Charles had moved on to the WNBA, and Diggins was the veteran hand, providing 19 points in 44 minutes in an overtime Final Four thriller. That win gave Diggins as many wins against Connecticut (four) as Notre Dame had total prior to her arrival.
Players grew up and worked on legacies in the series.
If the rivalry between Connecticut and Tennessee was special in part because of the two coaches on the sidelines, the rivalry between Connecticut and Notre Dame was at its best when the two coaches receded into the background. There might not be five coaches in the sport better at giving their teams an advantage over an opponent in any single game than Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw, but by the time their teams met for the 11th time in 2½ years, there was nothing left for them to diagram, no secrets left to probe.
Rarely quick to quip in even the least stressful of settings, McGraw nonetheless offered one of the best lines of the past season when she noted at the Final Four -- in response to a question about Philadelphia native Auriemma -- that residents of that city will "go to the airport and boo the landings" if unable to find any other fights to pick. Her ease was telling, in part surely because her team entered with two wins in three tries against UConn, but surely also because there was nothing left for her or Auriemma to worry about.
Final Four games often begin slowly and frequently evolve only as far as a race to see which team makes fewer mistakes. The game in Denver between Connecticut and Notre Dame, one that would end with a frantic sprint to the finish and a place in the conversation for the greatest of all time, began with the same feeling as many between the two, as if everyone in attendance was privy to one of the best pick-up games of all time. No tricks, no nerves, nothing more than five against five, with only the occasional substitute.
Can you do what you do better than your opponent does what she does?
From Diggins coming into her own to Moore's 21-point second-half explosion in defeat in the 2011 Final Four; from Ruth Riley putting up 29 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in Notre Dame's first-ever win against Connecticut in 2001; to Alicia Ratay turning in the performance of a lifetime with 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists to help the Fighting Irish beat the Huskies in the Final Four later that same season, it's the hallmark of a rivalry as suited to the driveway or an empty gym as an NBA arena filled to capacity with a championship on the line.
They are scheduled to play their second game this season in South Bend on March 4, the final day of the regular season and perhaps the final encounter as conference rivals. The Big East tournament begins in Hartford, Conn., four days later, where another meeting might depend on how quickly Diggins and the Fighting Irish find replacements for Novosel, Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory, and how quickly UConn's Breanna Stewart becomes the player everyone expects.
But should a third, or even a fourth, meeting take place this season, it won't be a matter of getting reacquainted. Connecticut and Notre Dame always know each other.
That familiarity is what will be lost. Like the annual meetings between Stanford against Connecticut, what's left over still could be compelling. But it won't be the same.