April 1, 2012
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DENVER (AP) - The UConn-Notre Dame semifinal matchup at the Final Four offers no secrets or surprises.
The BIG EAST bullies are meeting for the fourth time this season and for the eighth time in the past 14 months. By contrast, the other game pits Stanford and Baylor playing for the first time since 2008 and for just the fourth time ever.
Coaches Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame say this grudge match between such familiar foes will come down to execution and effort with a dollop of desire mixed in for good measure.
Forget the Xs and Os and leave the bag of tricks behind. They know each other's plays and personnel about as well as they know their own.
"There's no mystery left," Notre Dame guard Brittany Mallory said. "There's not going to be any surprises. It's all about heart, who is going to play the hardest, who is going to execute and play well."
The Huskies are motivated by revenge; they lost to the Fighting Irish 72-63 at the Final Four last year after sweeping the season series and beating Notre Dame in the conference tournament as well.
The Fighting Irish are driven by the mantra of unfinished business; after dumping UConn, they lost to Texas A&M in the title game a year ago.
"It (stinks) being the bridesmaid; you know what I mean? I want to get married. I want to be the main one, I don't want to be the side chick," said Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins, the BIG EAST's Player of the Year.
To get that chance, the Fighting Irish (34-3) will have to get past the Huskies (33-4) again Sunday night.
Buoyed by that win in last year's Final Four, Notre Dame swept UConn in the regular season only to lose to the Huskies in the BIG EAST tournament title game.
"That's pretty incredible how many times we've played each other, so there's definitely not much left to learn about the other team," UConn center Stefanie Dolson said Saturday. "But I think it makes it more fun because it's not going to be so much about Xs and Os, it's about just competing and who wants it most."
Both teams suggest the difference Sunday night will be heart and hustle - who gets the loose ball, the rebound that's up for grabs.
Those things went UConn's way in their last meeting, when the Huskies snapped their three-game skid against the Fighting Irish a few weeks ago.
"When you play a team that many times, you start to know every player in and out, the plays, their tendencies, that type of thing," UConn guard Kelly Faris said. "So it will come down to effort and the hustle plays."
The Fighting Irish, who watched clips of those game-turning plays Saturday as a reminder of what they'll have to do better this time around, contend their loss to UConn in the BIG EAST tournament actually did them a favor, fueling their drive to Denver.
"I think it did help us in some ways," McGraw said. "I don't think refocus is the right word with this group. I think coming off a loss you get a little hungrier, it motivated us to get back in the gym, work hard and prepare for the NCAA tournament."
Unlike last year, the Fighting Irish are the ones with the more experienced team this time. The Huskies lost superstar Maya Moore to graduation last year but still reached their fifth straight Final Four and are going for their third title in five years.
Mallory said beating UConn in the Final Four last year was a watershed moment for the Fighting Irish even though they didn't follow that up with their first title since 2001.
"After we won last year, it just kind of opened our eyes for us this year, and we just realized that we're not playing anybody special. It's just another game, another team, and we can really play with them," Mallory said.
"I think sometimes a lot of people get lost in the history of the program and the jersey and that can intimidate you right away," agreed Diggins. "I think this team, the past previous games especially, we haven't been intimidated. And no Maya Moore helps that out, too."
The Fighting Irish return four starters plus sophomore spark plug Kayla McBride, who missed the last half of last season for personal reasons and watched helplessly from the bench when Notre Dame fell to the Aggies 76-70 in the national championship game.
That stoked McBride's competitive fire, and she's had a sensational sophomore season, averaging 11.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists while leading the BIG EAST with an 86.4 percent free throw percentage.
Because they're both such an open book, the two teams suggested they spent less time this week tinkering and tweaking and more time focusing.
"I don't think there's anything else you can tell us about UConn, even what they had for breakfast. I think we know that," Diggins said.
For the record, Dolson said she had a ham and cheese omelet with some hash browns - but Diggins could have guessed that.
PHILLY FANATICS: Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw doesn't fit the image of the brash, in-your-face, egg-'em-on coach like, well, UConn coach Geno Auriemma. She does, however, display the thick skin that comes from growing up in Philly, like Auriemma.
"For people who don't know Philly, the saying is when they don't have anything better to do, they go to the airport and boo bad landings," McGraw said.
"I think the Philadelphia coaches are brash and outspoken. I think there's a lot of sarcasm used. I think they are right to the point. I think that's something that even my team had to deal with: I'm going to be honest and I'm going to tell you. And I think that's how most of those coaches are."
But because she grew up in that environment, McGraw said it's easy for her to blow off the bluster.
"Yes, it's so easy to let that go," she said, "because I think initially you kind of want to get into a fight. But it is easy to let it go. Especially being (that) I'm a Midwesterner now. So I'm so much more laid back than I used to be."
Auriemma bristled at the notion.
"Come on. You know, Muffet and (Baylor coach) Kim Mulkey are pretty much of the same era, I think, and they're what women's basketball coaches are supposed to be like: They're tough. They're competitive. They have a unique style about them. They can give it right back to you as well as take it," Auriemma said.
And Auriemma said it's easy for him to go after Muffet, in a playful way, of course.
"I bet you if she wasn't at Notre Dame I probably wouldn't try as hard to get under her skin, but the fact she's at Notre Dame it's easy," Auriemma said. "And I think that goes with the territory. It's like I'm the coach at Connecticut. So there's a lot of things that go along with that. If I wasn't the coach at Connecticut and we weren't this successful, nobody would care, nobody would say a word.
"But the fact that Muffet's from Philly and I've known her for 35 years and she's at Notre Dame, and if they keep beating us, we're in for it. She's in for it, big time. She's going to need more than a leather skirt. She's going to have to wear body armor. I'm coming after her."