Hartford - A longtime observer of UConn women's basketball made this observation about Geno Auriemma:
"I've never seen him want to beat a team this bad since Tennessee," the observer said before Monday night's biggie with Notre Dame at the XL Center.
There are many reasons, of course, to dislike Notre Dame. Now there's another, unearthed Monday by a few spies in and around the program.
Auriemma alluded to an "incident" at last year's Final Four during his television show last Saturday with Meghan Culmo. Turns out that after Notre Dame eliminated UConn from the Final Four, forward Becca Bruszewski, who has since graduated, opened the UConn locker room door and said, "It sucks to be you."
No one ever accused the official university of the Vatican of being particularly gracious winners. If they're not blubbering over another "miracle" under the Golden Dome, they're looking down on the heathens with their superiority.
All of which made Monday night more exasperating. UConn's 72-59 loss to Notre Dame rendered it the No. 3 seed in the weekend's Big East Tournament and was its third straight loss to the Fighting Muffets. Make no mistake: The Irish earned this one, grabbing offensive rebounds as if they were $100 bills bouncing off the rim.
Think about what the Huskies could have accomplished Monday night. They could have made a school unwilling to share anything, especially their football money, have to share the Big East regular season title. The Irish would have settled for the tiebreaker and worn white in the conference tournament championship game, if the teams make it that far.
Instead, the Huskies get the unenviable start times of 8:30 Sunday and Monday night in the tournament quarterfinals and semifinals.
Auriemma, who ditched his suit coat halfway through the first half, was on the floor clapping with verve and emotion rarely seen this season. Tiffany Hayes made a diving play during a UConn run in the first half that prompted Geno to walk three steps on the floor and clap his hands feverishly, hollering "yes, yes, yes, yes, yes."
You may remember that Auriemma, unlike many of the gutless wonders in the Big East, hasn't been afraid to voice his displeasure with Notre Dame's act. Auriemma has said in the past that if Notre Dame wants to be a member of the Big East, it needs to be all in … or out. Perhaps if the Irish illustrated a few of the ideals on which their institution allegedly stands, the Big East wouldn't be a helicopter drop of schools across the country.
Of course, if Big East officials ever played hardball and not slow pitch, they'd have given Notre Dame an ultimatum long ago.
This was all part of why Auriemma wanted this one badly.
He clearly conveyed his message to Stefanie Dolson, who returned to the program after a brief stint in witness protection. It's blindingly obvious to the program's followers that Dolson is more important to their success than a spleen or a lung. Dolson wasn't just efficient. Her effort was superior. Same with Hayes, who has embraced the urgency of senior year exactly the way most of the past program greats have.
Problem: Dolson and Hayes were UConn's offense.
Auriemma cleared the bench with 3:11 left and a 13-point deficit, sending a message to his players that was about as subtle as a chainsaw. Auriemma knows that the biggest game of the three between UConn and Notre Dame would be a week from today in the conference tournament final. Maybe the view from the bench was a wakeup call. Or maybe the horses already galloped from the barn. We'll see.
UConn won't hang a banner for the regular season in 2012. But there's plenty of season left. The most important part. Question: Can UConn beat Notre Dame next week after its hideous 0-for-2 thus far?
The perpetual overdogs will be an underdog on their home floor. Stay tuned.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.