In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the game everyone wanted to see was the UConn Huskies against the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. That rivalry had it all: great players on the court, great coaches on the sidelines and most importantly, a sense that either team could win on any given day.
Fast forward almost nine years since UConn and Tennessee last took the court opposite each other, and a new rivalry has taken over the women's college basketball game. That rivalry is set to resume Saturday, as third ranked Notre Dame is in town to take on No. 1 UConn.
The Fighting Irish will tip off against the Huskies for the 45th time, in front of a sold out crowd at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. The last time Notre Dame took the court at Gampel, they beat UConn by a point in dramatic fashion during the 2012-13 regular season.
That win was the Irish's most recent against the Huskies. Since that victory in 2013, UConn has won four straight meetings, three of which came in the NCAA Tournament. The 2014 and 2015 National Championships both featured these two schools, with the Huskies taking the hardware home in both.
UConn was also victorious in the 2013 Final Four, when they defeated Notre Dame en route to their first of three straight National Championships.
Despite the Irish's recent losses to UConn, Notre Dame has appeared in each of the last five Final Fours. Coach Muffet McGraw led her team to four of the last five National Championship games in that span, but has not been able to win the title.
Notre Dame's last National Championship came in 2001, when the Irish knocked off... you guessed it, UConn in the Final Four. That title came in Diana Taurasi's freshman year at UConn, who would go on to win the next three National Championships from 2002-2004.
Breanna Stewart has been a part of the Huskies last three National Championships, and is looking to win her fourth straight, something that Notre Dame kept Taurasi from being able to do. While Saturday's matchup is just one of many regular season games for both teams, there is sure to be a noticeably different level of intensity because of these two program's history.
Both teams enter the game undefeated, and are looking to make a statement with the season still in its earlier stages. UConn is coming off a week in which the Huskies have played four games, including their closest game of the young season at Depaul. Notre Dame defeated tenth ranked Ohio State Wednesday by three points at home without two of their key players.
Junior forward, Taya Reimer, missed the game against the Buckeyes with a sore achilles, and her status is uncertain for the UConn game. Standout sophomore forward, Brianna Turner, will not play against the Huskies with a right shoulder injury, as she tried to rehabilitate her shoulder to avoid season ending surgery.
Turner, the Atlantic Coast Conference Preseason Player of the Year, was a huge factor in the Irish's ten point loss in last year's National Championship game. Turner led her team with 14 points, and also grabbed ten rebounds, so not having her in Saturday's game is certainly a huge loss for Notre Dame.
That leaves sophomore Kathryn Westbeld as the only frontcourt starter that will still be in the starting lineup against the Huskies. Due to these injuries, the Irish are almost forced to put four guards on the court at once, playing smaller than they would like to.
That could prove to be a huge disadvantage for Notre Dame, as they prepare to attempt to slow down the American Athletic Conference's preseason player of the year. Stewart leads her team while averaging 23.4 points per game.
Maybe more of an advantage now for UConn is the way they've out rebounded their opponents through their first five games. The Huskies have a 225-137 edge on the glass so far this season, and that advantage may prove to be the difference as they face an Irish team, potentially, without a couple of their front court players.
Notre Dame does still have their senior leader, guard Madison Cable, who is averaging a team-high 16.4 points per game. Cable is coming off a big game against Ohio State, where she scored a career-high 25 points. She will have to have another terrific game to keep her team in the game against the Huskies.
The Irish have been excellent on the road since early in the 2011-12 season, having won 47 of its last 48 games away from Purcell Pavilion. They will look to continue their road success against a UConn team that has had their number lately. It will certainly not be easy, but if anyone can challenge the three time defending National Champs in their own building, it's Notre Dame.