One of the most intriguing storylines entering the 2014 men’s NCAA Tournament was whether Wichita State, which entered the tournament with a 34-0 record and a year removed from a Final Four appearance, could string together six more wins to become the first 40-0 team in men’s basketball history and the first undefeated national champ since 1976. The Shockers fell short, losing a last-second thriller in the round of 32 to eventual runner-up Kentucky, which lost to Connecticut in Monday night’s title game.
Tuesday night, however, another UConn team will be trying to do what Wichita State couldn’t. Connecticut’s women’s basketball team enters the 2014 national championship game with a perfect 39-0 record and is chasing the school’s ninth national title under coach Geno Auriemma and the first 40-win season in school history.
That the Huskies are undefeated doesn’t even seem like news anymore. UConn went 35-0 en route to a title in 1995, then went 39-0 to win titles in 2002, 2009, and 2010. From November 2008 to December 2010, the Huskies won 90 consecutive games, the longest win streak in college basketball history.
Even outside Storrs, the idea of an undefeated women’s champion isn’t all that new. Since UConn’s perfect season in 1995, Tennessee went 39-0 in 1998 and Baylor became the first college basketball team — women’s or men’s — to crack the 40-win mark by going 40-0 in 2012. There have been eight undefeated champs in the women’s game since 1981.
But here’s what is rare: for the first time in college basketball history, two undefeated teams are going to play for a national title. That’s because Notre Dame, UConn’s opponent in Nashville tonight, will enter the game 37-0 after knocking off Maryland in the Final Four on Sunday.
If it isn’t shocking to see a zero in the loss column for Connecticut, it might be for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish lost top scorer Skyler Diggins to the WNBA after the 2013 season, and she’s already an All-Star at the next level. But here they are again, in their fourth consecutive Final Four.
Notre Dame and UConn were conference rivals before both teams left the Big East after last season, but the rivalry has gained heat in the Final Four. This is the fourth consecutive season they have met at the Final Four, with all three previous meetings coming in the semifinals. Notre Dame knocked UConn out of the tournament in both 2011 and 2012, then beat the Huskies two times in the 2013 regular season and again in the Big East tournament championship. But it was Connecticut that won the Final Four rematch a season ago then went on to win the title, something Notre Dame hasn’t done since 2001.
Those meetings and the end of the conference rivalry mean there’s no shortage of dislike between the two teams, and even though they didn’t do battle on the court this season, they have done plenty of it off the court leading up to the final. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw edged Auriemma for national Coach of the Year honors and UConn’s Breanna Stewart beat out Notre Dame’s Kayla McBridge for the national Player of the Year award. Both teams were in attendance at the Nashville ceremony where those awards were handed out, and an “awkward silence” filled the room, according to the Boston Globe. The two coaches have sniped back and forth at each other in media appearances.
“I don’t think we are very fond of each other,’’ Stewart said afterward, according to the Globe. “I think everyone knows that.’’
That will make an already intriguing match-up even more so, especially because it will only add to excellent basketball. UConn is the nation’s leading scoring defense; Notre Dame the second-best scoring offense. The Huskies boast the country’s most efficient offense, but the Irish have the 12th-most efficient defense, as Swish Appeal’s Nate Parham noted in breaking down the game today. And in Stewart and McBride, both teams are paced by an All-American leader.
So unlike the men’s final, which unexpectedly produced a match-up between a seven-seed and an eight-seed, tonight’s women’s final is a meeting of the nation’s two best teams — two teams that don’t like each other. And one of them will suffer its first loss of the season while watching the other celebrate the sport’s ultimate honor.