HARTFORD, Conn. — While the Big East regular season was full of surprises, the conference tournament has gone as expected with Connecticut and Notre Dame meeting for the championship.
Both schools avenged regular-season upsets in the semifinals in similar fashion. Notre Dame routed West Virginia and UConn dismantled St. John's by nearly identical scores.
In consecutive weeks in February, the Mountaineers and Red Storm pulled off shocking victories on the home courts of the two Big East powers. That wasn't going to happen again Monday night as the Irish and Huskies both jumped out to quick leads and never let their opponents back into the game.
"We're the two teams that should be playing in the championship game," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "In the Big East tournament the two best teams are the ones who should be playing. They deserve it and so do we."
There won't be much new that either team can pull out for the title game Tuesday night. There is a definite familiarity between the schools as it will be the 10th meeting between them in the last three seasons.
It will also be the sixth time these two teams have met for the tournament crown. UConn has won the first five meetings. Still the Irish have handled the Huskies lately, boasting a rare three-game winning streak. They won twice this season and also in the national semifinals last April.
Notre Dame (30-2) will try and join an elite club by becoming the fourth team to beat Connecticut three times in the same season. Miami was the last to do it, 20 years ago. The Hurricanes also were the last team to knock off UConn in four straight meetings. No team has done that since the Huskies won their first national championship in 1995.
After the two teams met last Monday night, UConn was left searching for answers with Notre Dame pulling off a 72-59 victory. The Huskies seem to have found some, putting together consecutive strong games in the Big East tournament. They have gotten their swagger back.
"It's been a while since we've had an opportunity to be the team that we think we are," Auriemma said. "We'll know more after tomorrow night. We're playing one of the top two teams in the country tomorrow night. I think the challenge ahead of us is much greater than last night or tonight. ... Tomorrow gaining back our identity, gaining back who we are is way more important than winning another trophy."
UConn (28-4) is one victory from continuing its 18-year run of winning either the Big East regular-season or tournament title. The last time the Huskies were a three seed in 2005, they won the tournament crown.
"The best team in our league is Notre Dame. They've proven it since day 1," Auriemma said. "We're the next best team in the league."
While the Huskies will try and keep that streak alive, the Irish are trying to end their own championship drought. They've already won the outright Big East regular-season title for the first time in school history. Now Notre Dame will try and get coach Muffet McGraw her first tournament crown, filling in one of the only gaps on her impressive coaching resume.
"It's great for our school, particular in the season we've been having," Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins said. "We're excited for the opportunity to compete for the Big East championship. How much it would mean for us, our program, and Coach McGraw."