I suppose it is nice that UConn and Notre Dame invite two other teams to the party, but the result tends to be the same. For the fifth consecutive season, the two powers will meet in the Final Four. In 2011 and 2012, Notre Dame defeated UConn in the NCAA Semifinals before falling in the championship game, whereas UConn defeated Notre Dame in the 2013 Semifinal and 2014 Championship Game.
In UConn's quest for its third consecutive national championship, and Notre Dame's chase of its second national championship, consider the 2015 NCAA Championship to be Game 5 in the best current rivalry in women's basketball.
While many fans outside of Storrs, CT and South Bend, IN may have tired of the annual matchup between UConn and Notre Dame, the 2015 Championship Game will feature a matchup of the two best (recent) programs, two best coaches, and two best players (Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart). For neutrals, UConn and Notre Dame represent the best possible matchup.
Detractors will point to UConn's 21-point victory in last year's final as well as its 76-58 victory in December in a game played at Notre Dame as reasons to ignore the inevitable.
However, Notre Dame was missing Brianna Turner in December due to a right shoulder injury, and she was the catalyst early in the victory over South Carolina, finishing with 17 points and 8 rebounds before fouling out with 3 minutes to play. "I think that we are a much better team with her on the floor," McGraw, much like Captain Obvious, pointed out.
In fact, despite South Carolina's perceived advantage inside, it was the Notre Dame front court of Turner, Taya Reimer, and Kathryn Westbeld who accounted for 37 points on 15-for-26 shooting, while the backcourt players shot 11-for-38 and finished with 29 points.
After the game, when asked about the play of her star freshman, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw said, "I thought for her first Final Four, she played extremely well defensively and offensively. And I know if you asked her she'd probably say she didn't play very well, but I'm so happy with her potential and where she's going to be." If she did not play well on Sunday, watch out!
South Carolina's front court was long and talented, but nobody features a front court as talented and versatile as UConn. The matchup with Notre Dame, however, is intriguing because of the freshman Turner. Stewart is the two-time Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament, and the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, but Turner has the length and athleticism to match up with her.
The ability to match up with a player, and stop the player, are two different things, but how many people predicted that Madison Cable would stop All-American Tiffany Mitchell for large parts of the National Semifinal?
Early Sunday, Turner demonstrated her versatility, sprinting the court for a layup, blocking shots, diving to the rim on a pick-and-roll, and otherwise dominating the first six minutes of the game in a way that a freshman shouldn't.
UConn's Geno Auriemma said, "You watch her and physically she just runs right by you. If she can't run by you, she just jumps over you. So she impacts the game in a way that the rest of their post players can't." Notre Dame will need her defense to slow down Stewart.
When asked about Stewart, McGraw said, "Well, she is a difficult matchup because of her size and her ability to play on the perimeter and on the inside. So we've got a couple of ideas that we're going to try."
McGraw was able to create a defensive game-plan that contained an All-American on Sunday, but with no disrespect to Mitchell, Stewart is another task. McGraw added, "I don't think anybody's been very successful with her this year." McGraw's ability to deploy a defensive scheme, potentially centered around the length and athleticism of Turner, may be the deciding factor in whether or not Notre Dame can capture its elusive second title.
Offensively, Notre Dame's superstar Jewell Loyd had a subpar game on Sunday. She scored 22 points, but attempted 24 shots. She only managed to get to the free-throw line 3 times. A player with Loyd's talent rarely has two consecutive rough outings, and she is a big-game player.
Loyd is the type of off the dribble superstar who can control and win a game in the current point guard era. As UConn's Geno Auriemma said, "I watch her play and I think there's something about her that is different than any other woman playing college basketball today.
It's just something, she just has something, she has the way she moves, the way she touches the ball, the way the ball comes out of her hands. She just has something." Notre Dame hopes that something is enough on Tuesday to lead the irish.
With a bounce back game expected for Loyd, the key to the game will be Notre Dame's ability to slow down UConn, and McGraw's game-plan and Turner's defense will be keys for the Irish. If McGraw can neutralize one or more of UConn's stars as she did with Mitchell, and Loyd plays up to her expectations, Notre Dame should have a chance in the last 5 minutes.
UConn's advantage, of course, is that it has four more stars to take over a game when one star is neutralized or has a bad game. The expectation will be that Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will bounce back after her 1-for-5 shooting from the three-point line and shoot more like the all-time leader in three-point baskets.
Figuring out a way to stop the vaunted UConn offense will not be easy, but McGraw has been in this situation before, and has shown her ability to be the foil to Geno and the Huskies.
While many women's basketball fans may have lost interest in the re-match or a re-match, the fifth game of a 5-game series is almost always exciting. McGraw said, "I think it's a rivalry people want to see," which may or may not be true, when talking to fans of women's basketball.
The problem for the rest of the Division 1 teams in America is that, regardless of the result on Tuesday, recent history suggests that the 2016 Final Four will feature another re-match, as both teams will return most of its rotation and add top 10 ranked recruits into the mix.
In the world of women's basketball, the rich get richer, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. How many sports feature the best teams, best players, and best coaches in its championship game?