A lot of numbers will be in play in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday night, when Notre Dame takes on UConn to wear the women’s basketball’s crown.
For Muffet McGraw’s Irish, it's two and 38 : She is seeking the program’s second national title that would end with its 38 straight win.
Geno Auriemma’s Huskies prefer nine and 40: a record-setting ninth championship that would push UConn and its coach past Tennessee and his former nemesis Pat Summit. A win would cap a fifth undefeated campaign, and match Baylor’s 40-0 mark in 2012, the last victory at the expense of the Irish.
And from the perspective of this piece, it’s 3.5 – the top rating ever for a NCAA women's basketball title tilt with UConn’s win over Tennessee in 2004 – and 5.7 million – the record audience for the Diana Taurasi/Sue Bird/Swin Cash Huskies’ triumph over the Oklahoma Sooners and the telegenic Stacey Dales in 2002.
Yes, the stakes couldn’t be higher as ESPN and Watch ESPN bring the pursuit for perfection, tipping at 8:30 p.m. (ET), to a close. For the first time, two undefeated college basketball teams – women’s or men’s – will square off with the NCAA championship on the line. New Nielsen marks could be the byproduct of this dream March Madness matchup. Interest should be heightened by the possibility of a bookend double title-- both the UConn men and women cut down the nets in 2004, and with Shabazz Napier leading the way past Kentucky on Monday night, the Lady Huskies can make Storrs the undisputed capital of the college basketball capital world for the second time in a decade.
No longer Big East rivals – ND is in the ACC, UConn in Mike Aresco’s American Atlhletic Conference – the teams have quite the history. The Irish have owned the rivalry in recent years, winning seven of the last nine encounters, but the Huskies crushed ND in last year’s Final Four behind Breanna Stewart’s coming out party. A win for ND would mean they cuffed Connecticut for the third time in the last four Final Fours. Meanwhile, the Muffet-Geno mutual disdain has ascended to animus, approaching the warm feelings Auriemma reserved for Summit back in the day, before her early onset dementia.
Gauged by the last two games, Notre Dame appears to be playing better, mauling Maryland in the Final Four after ending Odyssey Simms career at Baylor. UConn, by its exalted standard, struggled against BYU and 6'7 center Jennifer Hamson and Stanford on Sunday in the semifinal, trailing in both contests for what must have seemed like interminable stretches, during a season in which they have been behind for less than an hour combined.
Doris Burke, as good as it gets among hoops’ commentators, rightfully said the Huskies never panicked as their shots didn't fall early against the Cardinal. But with another slow start on Tuesday, UConn might find itself down double-digits against the Irish’s top-ranked tournament offense However, ND’s prospects took a major blow when 6’3 Natalie Achonwa tore her ACL in the Elite Eight matchup versus Baylor.
The injury to ND's top rebounder and third-leading scorer is critical considering UConn’s frontcourt sports the 6-5 All American and sudden rock star Stefanie Dolson and national player of the year Stewart, who has been misfiring after recent hosannas annointed her as the distaff version of Kevin Durant.
The game could be decided in the backcourt where ND’s Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd are explosive and hold the size advantage over All-American Bria Hartley and her ball-handling running mate Moriah Jefferson.
Connecticut’s versatile, sharp-shooter Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis can make any game her own, and that’s a good thing for Auriemma, who has only been using one sub, Kiah Stokes, following the benching of the Huskies’ top recruit, Ossining’s own Saniyah Chong. Foul trouble could prove catastrophic to Connecticut, while the Irish’s rotation runs deeper.
A tigfht contest should push ESPN’s audience for the women’s title game beyond the viewership mark that has stood for over a decade.