The stage is set in the Music City.
No. 1 UConn and No. 2 Notre Dame will be playing for the NCAA women's basketball national championship tonight at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (8:30 p.m., ESPN).
Besides a national title, a lot is at stake tonight. One team will suffer their first loss of the season. UConn will be looking for their record ninth national title. Notre Dame will be looking to end their two-game championship losing streak and end UConn's 45-game winning streak.
And in doing so, there will be no love lost between these two programs.
From 1995 until 2013, UConn and Notre Dame were Big East rivals. They were consistently the top two teams in the conference, but the Huskies were always better. UConn led the all-time series 30-11.
Then in 2001, Muffet McGraw's crew played UConn three times during the season and won two of those battles. They shared the Big East regular season title and played an epic Big East Championship game in which Sue Bird hit a buzzer beater. After season-ending injuries to Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, the Huskies lost to Notre Dame in the Final Four en route to the only national title for the Irish.
But that seemed like a fluke. UConn would win the next three national championships. Then Rutgers stepped up to challenge the Huskies in the mid-2000s and the Irish slowly faded in the conference.
Then around in 2010, Notre Dame came back to being a player on the national scene. For the final three years of the Big East, UConn and Notre Dame was the marquee national television match-up. The Big East Conference became the premiere conference in women's basketball. The two programs would play 12 times those last three seasons - two regular season meetings, the Big East final, and then in the Final Four.
The Irish would win seven of last nine match-ups. It started at the Final Four in Indianapolis in 2011 when they knocked off UConn after the Huskies won the first three meetings that year. This loss ended UConn's chance from three-peating and Maya Moore's career. The Irish - so gracious in victory - yelled into the UConn locker room saying it "sucks to be you." Notre Dame would end up losing to Texas A&M in the final.
Again in 2012, the Irish beat the Huskies in Denver in the Final Four in overtime. Baylor would beat the Irish to complete a 40-0 season. Last season, Notre Dame would sweep the first three games of the season, but it was UConn this time that won in the Final Four. The Huskies went onto win the title.
Then everything changed.
Notre Dame left the Big East a season early to join the ACC. The Big East would leave the Huskies behind. Neither team would play each other during this regular season. Notre Dame wanted to play the Huskies, but Geno Auriemma's schedule was full.
McGraw added fuel to a fire on Selection Monday when she said UConn would not play them this season and she was used to beating them. Auriemma responded saying it was wrong to fib during Lent.
On Monday, McGraw was complaining about her lack of a relationship with Auriemma and also that her player did not win the national player of the year award. This is very similar to the 2004 season when things started to go south between the Pat Summit and Auriemma.
But Auriemma is a master of putting all the pressure and focus directly on him instead of his team. He fired shots back saying that it was Notre Dame that was telling recruits that they would get a better education in South Bend than in Storrs and explained that this what rivals do. They do not go out for drinks after a game. They are fighting for the same thing - no longer a Big East title, but a national title.
The Huskies come into tonight's game with a perfect 39-0 record. They have won every game in double digits this season. Yes, they have struggled shooting the ball during the first half of the past three games, but their defense has won them games. UConn defeated Stanford 75-56 on Sunday night in the national semifinals.
Led by National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, all five UConn starters score in double figures. Stewart is averaging 19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Bria Hartley (16.3 points) and Moriah Jefferson (10.2 points) create a quick backcourt tandem that runs the offense. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (13.2 points) is a deadly three-point shooter who has come to form during this postseason run. Stefanie Dolson (12.3 points and 9.3 rebounds) has been the best passing center in the country.
The Huskies only go six deep. Kiah Stokes will come off the bench and will be a defensive stopper.
The Irish won the ACC regular season and tournament title their first year in their new conference. They are 37-0 on the season. However, the Irish are not the same team as they were a week ago - they lost their emotional floor leader in Natalie Achonwa to a torn ACL.
UConn must contain Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. Both are tremendous offensive threats. Loyd was dominant during their regional final win against Baylor. McBride scored 28 points in the 87-61 victory over Maryland in the semifinals.
This is the biggest test both teams have faced all season.
Defensively, Notre Dame will look to draw charges. The Huskies must grab rebounds and stay out of foul trouble. Notre Dame had 50 rebounds on Sunday night. Also, UConn will need to knock down shots. They have trailed for several minutes early in games during this tournament. Stewart will be X factor. If she hits shots, Notre Dame will not be able to guard her. Last year, Stewart wasn't a factor in the first three match-ups, but in the Final Four Stewart went off for 28 points.
If the Huskies win tonight, they will break a tie with Tennessee for the most titles in NCAA history. UConn is a perfect 8-0 in national championship games and 12-0 if you add the men's total.