Tonight’s women’s basketball national championship game features two teams each vying for a perfect season. With one more win, Notre Dame or Connecticut will cap off a truly remarkable season, not without its challenges on either side. Those challenges, to be fair, were largely internal (injuries or graduation), as both the Irish and Huskies ran the table through their respective regular seasons, conference tournaments, and early rounds of the NCAA tournament. Nearly all of their wins were by double digits, and it didn’t take long for early-season observers to see that this year’s championship was likely going to be a two-horse race. Even matchups with ranked teams could not slow down these two juggernauts. The Irish defeated Penn State, Tennessee, Duke (3 times), Baylor, and Maryland (twice); and the Huskies defeated Stanford (twice), Louisville (3 times), Baylor, Penn State, Duke, and Maryland, all of whom were highly ranked for most of the season. It was clear that the #1 and #2 ranked teams had separated themselves from the pack, and we might as well have assigned them 1a and 1b.
After 76 other games (all wins), Notre Dame and UConn are the last teams standing in each other’s way in the goal of a perfect season. The rivalry between these former Big East powerhouses has intensified over the past few years. And it very well should have. Notre Dame and UConn have been two of the most consistently successful teams of the past decade, each on an impressive streak of consecutive appearances in the Final Four; Notre Dame at 4 and UConn at 7. Over the years, these two teams have traded regular season and postseason wins. With Big East regular season and conference titles on the line, games have been closely contested. A win by one team only fueled the motivation for revenge in the next matchup. They also played against each other in the past 3 Final Fours. The Irish won in 2011 and 2012 to reach the title game, but UConn defeated Notre Dame last season and went on to win the championship. There’s pride and motivation to this rivalry. Each team certainly brings out the best in the other. Both sides boast overflowing talent, multiple All-Americans, and a Hall of Fame coach. Both teams set high goals, and expect contend for championships every year.
But this season is different. In the aftermath of conference realignment, gone are the regular season matchups, and home court advantage. Games between UConn and Notre Dame cannot be used as midseason benchmarks, or give implications for conference titles. After playing against each other 4 times last season, this time they face off once. Each team undefeated. Perfect seasons on the line. Last game of the season. Neutral court. For all the marbles. In the NCAA tournament, upsets are great stories to follow, but this is the finale we want to see: the two best teams playing for the championship. No best-of-seven series; no home-and-home schedule; no rematch next week. Notre Dame and UConn; one game. It really couldn’t end any other way. AN