By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ All season it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Connecticut would play for another women’s national championship. It wasn’t as clear cut for Huskies nemesis Notre Dame.
The nation’s winningest programs since 2009 are right back where they were a year ago, meeting in the NCAA title game on Tuesday night.
UConn coach Geno Auriemama, who can tie John Wooden’s record of 10 NCAA basketball title, isn’t surprised.
The Huskies have won a nation-best 220 games over the past six seasons. Notre Dame is second with 203.
“They’re a lot like us. And I think that’s why they have had success against us. They have a lot of the same qualities that we have as a team and as a program,” Auriemma said after the Huskies breezed past Maryland 81-58 in Sunday night’s national semifinals. “So we give them problems like other teams in the country don’t and they give us problems like other teams in the country don’t.”
All-American Breanna Stewart scored 25 points and Morgan Tuck had 24 points and nine rebounds to lead the Huskies (37-1), who’ll be trying to finish a second title three-peat Tuesday night.
Notre Dame had a much more difficult time advancing, twice blowing double-digit leads before beating Final Four newcomer South Carolina 66-65 on Madison Cable’s only basket of the night. Jewell Loyd led the way with 22 points, but it was Cable’s short stickback of the All-American’s miss that got the Irish into the title game for the fourth time in five years.
UConn won a meeting between the old rivals by 18 _76-58 _ on Dec. 6 at Notre Dame, though Irish forward Brianna Turner missed that game with a shoulder injury. It was the Huskies’ narrowest margin of victory this season until South Florida lost to them by 14 in last month’s American Athletic Conference Tournament final.
“Tuesday night is not going to be any fun, believe me,” Auriemma said. “I’m glad we’re playing in that game, but it’s not going to be any fun. They’re really hard to play against.”
It’s just the second time in the history of the women’s NCAA Tournament that the same schools have met in the championship game in consecutive years. UConn and Tennessee played each other in 2003 and 2004, with the Huskies winning both.
While it isn’t a surprise that UConn is back, Notre Dame’s return is unexpected.
The Irish lost three starters from last year’s team that entered the championship game unbeaten, including a pair of players selected in the first round of the WNBA draft. Coach Muffet McGraw started two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
And despite Notre Dame’s stretch of success that includes five consecutive trips to the Final Four, the coach said she didn’t envision such a young team having much of a chance to get back to this stage after undergoing so much change.
“I remember thinking that and telling the team we lost 40 percent of our offense, 40 percent of our rebounds and 40 percent of our assists,” McGraw said, recalling the first day of practice last spring. “We really were a very different team, very young team. … We didn’t know who the leader was going to be.”
The Huskies and Irish have met 14 times over the past five seasons, with each time winning seven.
Auriemma isn’t surprised to be facing the Irish for the title again.
“I think at Notre Dame, and at Connecticut, we don’t try to have great teams. … Their program now kind of sustains great teams year in and year out,” the UConn coach said. “They’re not dependent as much as some other schools maybe on graduation, recruiting. There’s always enough players already in those programs that when somebody graduates they just throw somebody in that spot.”