NASHVILLE — If there ever were a sports matchup with organic hype, this is it: the first meeting of two undefeated teams in the final of an NCAA women's basketball tournament.
Add to that the sass, snark and sniping the coaches of those teams indulged in Monday, and Tuesday's game between Connecticut and Notre Dame has taken on an atmosphere that is multiplying the hype exponentially.
Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw said "hate" and "lack of civility" would be fair ways to describe her team's rivalry with Connecticut. Its coach, Geno Auriemma, delivered ripostes with a velvet shiv, an out-of-character approach that led him to say, "Who would have ever thought I would take the high road?
"Whenever I see the numbers and the things we've done, I kind of just shake my head," Auriemma said. "I would hate us too."
When the teams left the Big East Conference last year, each for a different conference, McGraw said Auriemma rebuffed Fighting Irish efforts to schedule a meeting this season.
"Let me just say it's not nice to fib during Lent," he replied.
"I try not to get down to his level," McGraw said.
Her relationship with Auriemma: "We don't have a relationship."
McGraw marveled that a very physical Connecticut team has been called for fewer fouls this season than any Division I team. Auriemma shot back that the only thing more amazing was how many free throws Notre Dame shot against his team the last three seasons.
"We already don't like each other," said Kayla McBride, Notre Dame's All-American.
"I don't think we are very fond of each other," said Connecticut's Breanna Stewart, the national player of the year.
The Irish (37-0) have won seven of the last nine games against the Huskies (39-0), two in the NCAA semifinals. But after losing the first three meetings last season, Connecticut routed Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals on the way to its record-tying eighth national championship.
Both coaches carry chips on their shoulders: McGraw over Connecticut's utter dominance of any discussion about women's basketball, Auriemma over the perceived air of academic superiority he thinks schools like Notre Dame use against Connecticut in recruiting.
"It's superfluous," Auriemma said of the exchanges between the coaches. "We use big words at Connecticut too."
That Notre Dame has won only one NCAA title, in 2001, means McGraw knows she is at a sizable disadvantage in any battle of braggadocio.
"You've got to win championships to have people talk about you that way," she said.
It is the coaching similarities between McGraw, 58, and Auriemma, 60, that have allowed Notre Dame and Connecticut to separate themselves from everyone else in the country this season. They both relentlessly drive their teams to excellence, harp on the smallest details and use motion offenses that have made them the top two Division I teams in assists and field-goal percentage.
McBride saw those parallels at a USA Basketball senior national team camp last fall, when Olympic Coach Auriemma was her boss.
"They expect perfection," she said.
One of their teams will achieve that Tuesday.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times