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A room with some stew(ing)

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 08. 2014 4:00AM

Nashville, Tenn.

The room wasn't big enough for both of them. No, really. It wasn't. This was the other day at the Final Four, when fate's sinister amusement conspired with the excellence of the programs, gathering everyone in a cramped little room for an awards ceremony.

UConn and Notre Dame. Violating each other's airspace. Not enough chairs. If they were any closer to each other, a few of them would have fouled out. It was all there, thicker than Tennessee drawl, tension wrapped around festering rivalries, impatience and unspoken snarls.

Nobody knew for sure at the time, but surely suspected, they'd meet again in a few days for the whole Heineken truck. That's where this story concludes tonight. Where it always does in sports. On the scoreboard. Inside the biggest room of them all.

This is the Final Four that's been told through rhythms of different rooms. The little room a few days ago. The bigger room Monday, where the coaches offered their musings to the masses. And the biggest one tonight, still part of the unwritten script.

It's been quite edifying, the views the rooms have offered, revealing high definition illustrations of how the programs operate.

Turns out Yogi was right again. You can see a lot by observing.

And so it began in the little room Saturday. The media, teams and players were shoehorned inside Room H at Bridgestone Arena, barely bigger than a bread box, for the Associated Press awards. Oh to have been able to read minds as the dramatis personae sat and waited.

Just before it began, UConn coach Geno Auriemma offered his seat to hobbled Notre Dame senior Natalie Achonwa, who was on crutches, after her recent knee injury.

"Would you like to sit here?" Auriemma said.

"Yeah," Achonwa said.

Auriemma is still waiting for "thanks, coach."

A little later, Breanna Stewart was called to the podium to accept the AP Player of the Year award. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw did not applaud. Neither did her husband. Neither did assistant coach Beth Cunningham. (Assistant coach Niele Ivey did).

Lest anyone try to deny this, Jim Fuller of the New Haven Register caught it on video.

The UConn contingent, it should be noted, applauded for McGraw when she won Coach of the Year.

Now we fast forward to Tuesday, bigger room, the interview room, cameras rolling. Auriemma responds.

"I thought Stewie deserved to be Player of the Year and I'm glad I was there to be a part of it, and I thought Muffet deserved to be Coach of the Year and I'm glad I was a part of it," Auriemma said.

"It wasn't uncomfortable for me at all. Not at all. Maybe because I've been in those situations so many times, it doesn't bother me. When you've won as much as we've won you get to appreciate when other people win. So it's not all about Connecticut all the time."

Not that Auriemma didn't notice Notre Dame's reaction, or lack thereof, to Stewart's honor.

"I think you guys alluded to what's it like being us. Nobody knows what it's like being us. Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win awards, (other people) get pissed off," he said. "Worst off, they act pissed off because our guys won an award because it's Connecticut all the time, all Connecticut, all the time. People are sick of it. It's just natural. We live with it 365 days a year. If you come in with that air, then you have to live to deal with it."

This is the difference between UConn and Notre Dame.

In the little room: UConn was more contrite and polite.

In the big room: UConn players and coaches were eminently more comfortable in the spotlight. The players were more engaging and forthcoming. Auriemma floated between sincerity and snowballs, often in the same sentence. Right tenor, right touch.

McGraw said Tuesday how "the rivalry has gone a little away from the civility there was when we were in the league together."

McGraw was asked what could be done to restore civility.

"I think we're past that point," she said tersely.

This was likely in reaction to Auriemma's jab at the beginning of the tournament, following McGraw's comment on ESPN implying UConn ducked Notre Dame this year.

"Tell Muffet it's not nice to fib during lent," Auriemma said.

And on it goes.

And is it so bad?

It's fabulous theater. So Auriemma plays the game better. Every good story needs a villain.

"I could sit here and list 10,000 coaches that don't interact with each other whose rivalries are intense," Auriemma said. "This is a function of women's basketball. Sometimes we act like girls, like we're supposed to go to dinner every night. We're supposed to play each other, try to beat each other's brains in, try to win a national championship and compete like hell. Muffet and Geno. And then we're supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine. That's just not going to happen. So stop asking us why it doesn't happen."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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