NASHVILLE — From the very start of the NCAA Women’s Tournament, the University of Connecticut and Notre Dame basketball teams, both undefeated, were clearly a cut above the rest of the field of 64.
The Selection Committee installed the top-ranked Huskies and second-ranked Irish as top seeds and placed them on opposite sides of the bracket so that — if all things went according to plan — the unblemished supernovas would meet in a subatomic collision in the championship game.
Now the matchup has been set: it’ll be 39-0 UConn against 37-0 Notre Dame in Tuesday night’s title game, marking the first pairing of undefeated teams — in the men’s or women’s NCAA tourneys — for the national championship.
“It looked to me like, as the season went on, it almost looked like it was inevitable,’’ said UConn coach Geno Auriemma after he guided the Huskies to their 45th straight win and ninth appearance in the national championship with a 75-56 romp over Stanford in the nightcap of Sunday’s semifinal doubleheader.
“Like it was supposed to happen,’’ he said.
Now the UConn men’s and women’s squads will be playing for the national championship on consecutive nights. The men will face Kentucky in the men’s final Monday.
“I think it’s awesome,’’ said UConn senior Bria Hartley. “I know our men are really excited for us and rooting us on. We’re doing the same thing for them. I think all the fans in Connecticut are really proud right now.’’
The Huskies can hit the rare daily double for the second time in school history, accomplishing it in 2004.
“Our sport probably doesn’t have enough significant moments, you know,’’ Auriemma said. “I don’t know that we have the kind of moments that happened [Saturday] night at the men’s Final Four where you get a 7 and 8 seed playing for the national championship. I don’t think we have enough of those moments in our game.’’
But Tuesday night’s finale is shaping up as One Shining Moment for the women’s game.
“To have the spotlight on Tuesday on two teams that one of them is going to lose for the first time this year, it’s pretty remarkable,’’ Auriemma said. “When you think about it, it’s pretty hard to do for one team, much less two.’’
After the Fighting Irish clinched their berth by dispatching Maryland, 87-61, UConn followed suit — although it required a bit of effort.
UConn All-American Breanna Stewart scored 18 points, but missed her first four shots, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis chipped in 15 second-half points.
“I think the game played out, at least in the first half, exactly how I thought it would play out,’’ said Auriemma, who got double-digit scoring from all five starters, including 13 from Hartley and 10 apiece from Stefanie Dolson and Moriah Jefferson.
“We knew it would be a little bit of a struggle,’’ the UConn coach said. “It’s hard to make shots — unless you’re [Notre Dame’s] Kayla McBride — it’s hard to make shots at the Final Four.
“Once we got settled in and got our rhythm, I thought we played one of the best games that we played all year, given the fact that we beat a really, really good team.’’
Led by All-America Chiney Ogwumike, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Stanford saw its season end in a bittersweet bit of symmetry, with the Cardinal suffering their first and last losses of a 33-4 season against UConn, which rallied from a 3-point deficit by going on a 12-0 run to take a 28-22 lead on Stewart’s foul-inducing layup with 1:58 left before intermission.
“In some ways it takes one thing to get here [to the Final Four],” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “But then to beat Connecticut, when you’re here, we needed something else. And we needed to be bigger. We needed to play a bigger lineup, but we didn’t.’’
The Cardinal had no answer for UConn when the Huskies stretched their 28-24 halftime lead to as many as 17 points, 44-27, on Mosqueda-Lewis’s 3-point burial with 14:12 to go.
Stanford pulled within 11 twice in the final 5:24, but drew no closer as the Huskies stretched their lead to 21 points on Jefferson’s layup with 37 seconds left, thus setting the stage for Tuesday’s night’s heavyweight bout between unbeaten titans.
“I hope it’s going to be a great game,’’ VanDerveer said. “And maybe that’s what — there’s been this buildup all along through the whole tournament. Maybe that will get the attention of some people.’’
During the regular season, the top-ranked Huskies seemed to go unchallenged in the American Athletic Conference, rampaging to a perfect 18-0 league record by a whopping average margin of victory of 35 points.
The Huskies, as a result, sought more than token resistance from their nonconference foes.
The only exception from UConn’s list of victims was the undefeated Fighting Irish, whom the Huskies didn’t face during the regular season.
Now the tantalizing matchup of undefeated teams in the national championship is finally set.