When the brackets were revealed on Selection Monday, many saw UConn and Mississippi State on opposite sides and penciled them in for a meeting in the final. It seemed like the two teams were destined to play the ultimate rematch on the sport’s biggest stage — a notion reinforced once the Bulldogs pulled off an incredible comeback win against Louisville in the semis.
But Notre Dame had different plans. The Fighting Irish took down the Huskies in overtime of the second national semifinal thanks to a game-winning shot from Arike Ogunbowale.
It’s no secret beating UConn takes a herculean effort from an incredible team. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer coach understands what it takes.
“The only thing worse than playing Connecticut is playing the team that beat them,” he said.
While that logic makes sense, history tells a different story. The Huskies have reached 11 straight Final Fours since 2008 and have fallen in the semifinals five times, including this season. The last four teams to beat UConn have all lost.
Notre Dame Muffet McGraw certainly knows the feeling, having beaten the Huskies back-to-back in 2011 and 2012, only to lose in the final both times. In 2011, the Irish pulled off two straight emotional wins and struggled to get up for the championship.
“We beat Tennessee in the regional, came in and beat Connecticut. Nobody had ever beaten them back to back,” she said. “It was like we were done. We were spent. That was all the emotion that we had. We just never really recovered from it.”
Ultimately, the biggest issue teams run into after beating UConn is putting everything from the game in the past and moving on to the next.
“Any time you beat Connecticut, because of the dominance of their program, it’s just such an emotional win,” McGraw said. “It makes it really hard to get back to work. You feel like that should have been the championship game. We should be going home right now.
“It’s a lot of emotion. It’s a lot of adrenaline. So it really is hard to come back and try to gather yourself just with one day in between. Not a lot of time.”
Treating a win over the Huskies like a national championship was the exact problem Mississippi State ran into last season as the Bulldogs celebrated the win at the hotel with the players enjoyed their newfound celebrity status into the early morning.
But this year, Schaefer made sure his team stayed in and rested up for their day off before the biggest game in program history.
“I realize my kids had been to bed where they hadn’t been last year. Our kids got to bed quite a bit earlier obviously this year,” he said. “And I’ve talked to my starters this morning. And they said they feel, they’re fine and they did get some rest.”
But if any team were to break the streak of beating UConn before losing in the championship, it’s Notre Dame. The Irish are the last team to take down the Huskies and claim the trophy, doing so in 2001 when the ended Sue Bird’s college career before defeating Purdue for the program’s only national title.
They also have the experience of knocking out UConn, so they can continue on, business as usual.
“I think the problem was falling asleep (after the game). Everybody was trying,” McGraw said. “They slept in this morning, and that was good. Overall, I think everybody feels pretty good.”
The questions will be answered on Sunday night when Notre Dame and Mississippi State battle for the national championship at 6 p.m. on ESPN.