NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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, no matter that some of it may be artificially created.
Notre Dame coach 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?”
Both have a fluency with sarcasm said to come naturally to anyone raised in the Philadelphia area, where they grew up. Both long have been known for bluntness, and Auriemma is famous for trying to get under others’ skin.
“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.”
McGraw was first to get out the needle Monday, although an Auriemma comment two weeks ago had provoked her.
When the teams left the Big East last year, each for a different conference, McGraw said Auriemma rebuffed Irish efforts to schedule a meeting this season. “Let me just say it’s not nice to fib during Lent,” he replied.
Her reaction? “I try not to get down to his level,” McGraw said Monday.
Her relationship with Auriemma: “We don’t have a relationship.”
McGraw marveled that a very physical UConn 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 has shot against his team the last three years.
The players expressed the same feelings with more delicacy.
“We already don’t like each other,” said Notre Dame’s consensus first team All-America Kayla McBride.
“I don’t think we are very fond of each other,” offered UConn’s Breanna Stewart, the national player of the year.
This has become a case of familiarity breeding contempt, as the Irish and Connecticut played 12 times the three previous seasons, although McGraw said she felt the disdain emerge in this first season they have not had a regularly scheduled matchup since the first in 1996.
“I think after beating them and still not feeling any respect for that, we definitely lost our civility,” she said.
The Irish (37-0) have won seven of the last nine games with the Huskies (39-0), two in the NCAA semifinals. But after losing the first three meetings last season, Connecticut routed Notre Dame in 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 feels 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.”
Referring to his point guard Moriah Jefferson’s learning about Final Four media procedures, Auriemma said, “She’s getting a good education. Not a Notre Dame education. But a good education.”
And: “Last time I checked our library, we have lots of books. And they’re all pretty good.”
That Notre Dame has won just 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.
The first step for Notre Dame was to feel it could beat Connecticut. That developed in 2011, when former Irish star Skylar Diggins gave the Irish an attitude adjustment.
“That began my freshman year,” said Natalie Achonwa, the injured Irish forward. “We decided the name on the jersey doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
“It’s a little like how you feel about a bully,” McGraw added. “You have to be confident and attack.”
It is, ironically, 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.