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Women’s NCAA tournament: Familiar foes face off in Final Four

It wasn’t long ago Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw were constantly on each other’s minds.

That’s what happens when you coach two of the nation’s best teams and play in the same conference. Connecticut and Notre Dame would play four times a season, heightening the intensity of one of the best rivalries in women’s college basketball.

Now with the two powerhouse programs in different conferences, the intensity has diminished. They play only once a season, with a second meeting usually coming on the grand stage of the Final Four.

“The neat thing about it is after every game in December now I will say to her all the time, ‘I’ll see you in March. If I see you in March it will be in the Final Four, so that’s cool,’” Auriemma said.

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The unbeaten Huskies (36-0) and Irish (33-3) play Friday night in the national semifinals in which all four top seeds advanced. The winner will face Louisville or Mississippi State for the title Sunday night.

There was a stretch between 2010 and 2013 when UConn and Notre Dame played 15 times. The Irish won seven times, twice knocking UConn out of the Final Four.

“I think now we only play them once a year, there is some distance to the rivalry,” McGraw said. “I think that it always, of course, will be a rivalry just because they’re the best team in the country right now. But I think it’s not that intensity that we had when we were in the Big East because you’re constantly watching in your conference.”

In the title game of the 2013 season, with both teams unbeaten, the Huskies beat the Irish. UConn has won the five meetings since, including a 80-71 victory on Dec. 3 this season.

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Notre Dame led that game by double digits in the fourth quarter before the Huskies rallied to win despite two ailing All-Americans — Gabby Williams sat out the second half with a migraine; Katie Lou Samuelson reinjured her foot in the final period.

Mississippi State (36-1) wants to write some more history.

For now at least, the Bulldogs are best remembered as the team that ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak in last year’s national semifinal, knocking off the Huskies in overtime on a buzzer-beater by guard Morgan William. It was the shot heard around world, overshadowing Mississippi State’s loss in the final to South Carolina.

With virtually the same guard-strong lineup as last year, the Bulldogs seek another title-game appearance. They’ll have to beat a Louisville team that is 36-2.

“Last year’s experience was great,” said William. “UConn, of course, and just to get back here, it’s a blessing. It’s hard to get back here two times in a row. So I’m glad we came back and made it back.”


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