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UConn women are playing for a share of Big East title tonight

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published March 04. 2013 4:00AM
Nam Y. Huh/AP photo
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw talks to guard Skylar Diggins (4) during a game against DePaul on Feb. 24.

South Bend, Ind. - Narratives aren't necessarily profound before marquee sporting events, evidenced by the following theme entering tonight's Big East regular season championship game:

"Muffet has Geno's number."

It's been a popular, if not shallow, explanation for Notre Dame's 4-1 record against UConn since the 2011 Final Four. It's also gained momentum since the Irish's one-point victory at Gampel Pavilion in January.

"She doesn't have my number," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, alluding to counterpart Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame, in the hours before tonight's rematch between the second-ranked Irish and No. 3 Huskies at Purcell Pavilion (7 p.m., ESPN2).

"This is not about my number or hers," he said. "That would mean that Muffet is not very bright, because it took her 30 (actually 28) losses to get my number and I know Muffet is a lot smarter than that.

"This is not me against Muffet," he said. "The outside world doesn't want to believe this, but when we had Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Rita Williams and Renee Montgomery, I had everybody's number. Now that Notre Dame has Skylar Diggins, who might be best point guard in the country, they have everybody's number. Funny how numbers are attached to really good point guards."

Auriemma stopped short of saying this is a rivalry now that matches the passion of UConn-Tennessee. But not by much. He was awash in recalling details of the last five games in the series as if they'd happened earlier that day: Officiating, his own coaching mistakes, Natalie Novosel's prayer at the Final Four, Kaleena Mosqueda's Lewis' wide open three …

"The rivalry that exists between us is a true rivalry because we've played them a lot in a short period of time. And the games have all been meaningful," Auriemma said. "Except for last year's final regular season game, every game has come down to who makes a play late. Every game."

Kelly Faris said, "There's a lot that has to do with will. At this point, we have good players and they have good players. It comes down to hustle plays. We say it every year and in the end it does."

Faris might have added "free throws" to "hustle plays." Notre Dame, which has won 22 straight since a loss to No. 1 Baylor in December, has shot 107 free throws against UConn in the last five games. UConn has shot 73.

"To me, it's just an anomaly," Auriemma said with a slight smirk. "We're one of the teams that fouls the least in America. We shoot more free throws than every team we've played for the last 28 years I've been here except for one team."

The Huskies have attempted 452 free throws this season. Notre Dame has attempted 626.

All of which makes tonight's assignment more difficult. Can the Huskies keep Notre Dame off the line? Can they get production from someone other than Mosqueda-Lewis, Faris and Stefanie Dolson? Can they contain Diggins and guard Kayla McBride, who was magnificent earlier this season against them? And can they play with the requisite passion, knowing there's a chance the teams will meet at the Big East Tournament and perhaps at the Final Four?

"Any time there's a championship at stake it's a big game. The fact that the winner gets the trophy makes it a big game," Auriemma said. "There's life after. But it doesn't diminish the fact that it's a big game.

"I told the team (Saturday after the win over South Florida) that this was the last insignificant game and even (Saturday) you had to win to put yourself in position," he said. "Starting (today), every game has tremendous meaning. (Today) is for a championship. The following Sunday if we get beat, we're out of the Big East Tournament. Then it's the NCAA Tournament.

"There are two ways kids react," he said. "They (soil) their pants or you can see it as March comes like this glow that comes over them and they say, 'man, it's finally here.'"

m.dimauro@theday.com

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