Behind The ScenesNCAAB

Championship Tuesday notebook: UConn-Notre Dame becoming an ESPN staple

Longtime rivals Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd (right) and UConn's Breanna Stewart meet again tonight on ESPN in the 2015 Women's Final Four Championship Game. (Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)
Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd (right) and UConn’s Breanna Stewart meet again tonight on ESPN in the 2015 Women’s Final Four Championship Game.
(Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)

TAMPA, Fla. – When the lights went out in Amalie Arena on Sunday night after the 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Semifinals, two very familiar teams remained: UConn (37-1) and Notre Dame (36-2).

Fans, coaches and ESPN had seen this Women’s Final Four duel before, but few might have expected a rematch of such importance so soon. Tonight at 8:30 ET on ESPN, the Huskies-Fighting Irish showdown represents not only the second pairing this season of the two teams on ESPN airwaves, but also the second consecutive spring these teams have represented the last women standing in the NCAA tournament.

“We always expect to see UConn, but Notre Dame wasn’t an automatic then, given their youth. But no doubt these are the two best teams in the game now,” said Dave O’Brien, who’s calling play-by-play for ESPN’s Women’s Final Four telecasts.

It was just 12 months ago in Nashville, Tenn. that the same two coaches – UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw – prepared to face each other in the 2014 National Championship game. The meeting tonight marks their fourth duel at the Final Four in five years – all on ESPN. The Fighting Irish are 3-2 all-time against the Huskies at the Final Four, winning three of four semifinal contests (2001, 2011 and 2012, a loss in 2013) before Connecticut won the title game matchup last spring.

Once Notre Dame beat South Carolina and UConn defeated Maryland this past Sunday in the semifinals, ESPN crews have spent the 36 hours since cutting graphics and features that will highlight the storied rivalry. There have been 43 games played between Notre Dame and UConn since the 1995-96 season, including one this past December.

As the 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Game between Duke and Wisconsin on Monday had a regular-season “prequel” airing on ESPN, the women’s title game has the equivalent: In the Jimmy V Classic played Dec. 6 on ESPN, the visiting Huskies defeated Notre Dame 76-58.

“It is important for women’s basketball to have games of this caliber continue annually,” said ESPN programming manager Lindsey Ross. “We need to showcase these incredibly talented women, but most importantly allow viewers to see the quality of play of women’s basketball and creating new fans of the game.”

Auriemma made history Sunday when he tied legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden for most appearances in an NCAA basketball championship game: 10. Auriemma is 9-0 in his previous championship game appearances; Notre Dame’s McGraw led the Fighting Irish to the 2001 national title.

“What more could we ask for in a national championship game than the best rivalry in the game adding yet another chapter?” said analyst Doris Burke, who will cover this game along with O’Brien and sideline reporter Holly Rowe.

“We have two unanimous first team All-Americans [UConn forward Breanna Stewart and Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd], the nation’s two best offenses squaring off under the brightest lights. Will it be an extraordinary 10th title for Geno or will Muffet play spoiler once again? I can’t wait!”


The view from behind the bench: No, literally. This was writer Mechelle Voepel’s view for both Final Four semifinals games in Amalie Arena and the perspective she’ll have for tonight’s championship game. Read more about Voepel’s history covering the event.

Bird’s-eye view: ESPN pre-game, halftime and post-game shows are all televised live from a set built in Section 120 of Amalie Arena, home to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. See the excellent seats hosts Kevin Negandhi, Kara Lawson and Rebecca Lobo have during the The NCAA Women’s Championship Special Presented by Capital One (tonight, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Kevin Negandhi, Kara Lawson and Rebecca Lobo during the Women's Final 4 semifinal game. (Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)
Kevin Negandhi, Kara Lawson and Rebecca Lobo during the Women’s Final 4 semifinal game. (Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)

Spotted: The Monday Night Football production truck is being used for ESPN’s coverage of the Women’s Final Four coverage.

Crowd surfing: Hollywood A-Lister Tom Cruise was spotted during the semifinals Sunday night in a suite with friends and family. Former UConn star Sue Bird, now an ESPN college basketball analyst, and ex-Notre Dame standout Skylar Diggins – a former ESPN intern – are also in town supporting their alma maters.

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