History And Hatred In A Battle Of Basketball Unbeatens

Michelle Smith, a women's basketball writer for ESPNW, offers a preview of Tuesday's NCAA women's basketball final.

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Two undefeated teams go head-to-head tonight in the women's NCAA championship game. The University of Connecticut has 39 wins, no losses. Notre Dame is 37 and 0. It's the first time two unbeaten college basketball teams will meet in the title game, men's or women's. And it promises to be an epic matchup between old rivals - with a hefty dose of smack talk leading up to it.

Michelle Smith joins me from Nashville, where she's getting ready to cover the game for ESPNW.com. Michelle, welcome.

MICHELLE SMITH: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: These two teams were so dominant this season. Talk a bit about strengths that Notre Dame and UConn both bring to this title game.

SMITH: Well, both teams have one of the best players in the country on their roster. Connecticut has Breanna Stewart, who has won a couple of the national player of the year awards so far. We have Taylor McBride on the other side, a senior Notre Dame. They've both won all of their games this season, obviously, both by hefty margins. Neither one of them has really been pushed too much during this run to the championship. So we're really talking about, right now, the two powerhouses in women's college faculties facing off.

BLOCK: Two powerhouses in two fiercely intense, rival coaches. You've got Muffet McGraw with Notre Dame, who said yesterday that it was a fair assumption to say that these two teams hate each other. And then you've got Coach Geno Auriemma with UConn, going for a record ninth title, has never lost a championship game. And he was asked to respond to Muffet McGraw's comments. Let's take a listen.

GENO AURIEMMA: You know, we're supposed to play each other, try to beat each other's brains in. You Know? Try to win a national championship and compete like hell, Muffett and Geno. And then we're supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine? That (BEEP) is not going to happen, so stop asking us why it doesn't happen.

BLOCK: Michelle, what do you think about that? He's basically telling the media: Look, this is nonsense, this happens all the time.

SMITH: Bless Geno.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: He's, you know, I mean it's interesting. There is not right now a lot of love lost between these two coaches, certainly not between these two programs. What's interesting is I think all of this stems a little bit from the fact that they used to be in the same league. They both played in the Big East last year. But with the realignment of the leagues - Notre Dame moved to the ACC. Connecticut moved to the American Conference - there were some hard feelings there. They'd been trying to schedule one another outside of conference, there were some hard feelings there. There are some issues that need to get worked out on the court tonight.

BLOCK: And if you think about the past record of how these two teams matched up when they were in the same conference, what does that look like?

SMITH: Well, Notre Dame is one of the few teams that's had success against Connecticut in the last few years. I mean, nobody has success against Connecticut, they just lose games. But last year, Notre Dame beat them three times during the season when they played twice during the regular season in the Big East, and then in the Big East tournament. But it was Connecticut who ended up beating Notre Dame at the Final Four.

So they have a history. They have a, you know, we're going to call it a bitter rivalry because at this point it's feeling a little bit bitter. But it's certainly been a rivalry that not many other teams in the country can claim against UConn, because nobody beats them.

BLOCK: How big a blow is it for Notre Dame to be missing their star player Natalie Achonwa? She tore her ACL in the quarterfinals.

SMITH: It's a huge blow. I mean, I think when you lose your senior leader, your leading rebounder, that's a huge blow and you need to adjust. Connecticut is big and they have a very big front line and I think they will miss Natalie Achonwa more tonight than they did in Sunday night's game.

BLOCK: Are you seeing any weaknesses in these two teams, Michelle, that you'll be looking for tonight, seeing if the other team can exploit them?

SMITH: You know, I mean I think the weakness for Notre Dame obviously is missing Natalie Achonwa. I don't think they're as big or as able to withstand what happens in the pain and the rebounding edge and things against a team like Connecticut when you're missing such a crucial piece.

With Connecticut, I've got to be honest, there aren't very many weaknesses. You have to play, if you're playing Connecticut and you want to win a title, you have to play at an exceedingly high level from the beginning of the game to the end, without the stretches where you miss shots or where you don't defend well. Because if Connecticut goes up on you eight or 10 points, it's done. It's over. I mean it really is. You just can't afford not to play well every second of the game when you play Connecticut.

BLOCK: Well, Michelle, thanks for talking to us. Have fun tonight.

SMITH: Think you so much.

BLOCK: That's Michelle Smith with ESPNW.com. She's covering tonight's women's NCAA championship game in Nashville.

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