For the past three years a marathon chess match has gripped the Big East Conference, played with pieces colored blue and green.
Notre Dame and UConn, back and forth, check and checkmate. It's been marvelous to watch, better to talk about; the tornado of all rivalries now that Pat and Geno have been relegated to the pages of autobiographies.
And now, for the last time in a conference with a month to live, the game is upon us again. And once again, it will be for the championship.
"It was a crazy game, I thought. But we did a lot of very good things," coach Geno Auriemma said. "We got contributions from a number of people and put ourselves into good situations."
The Huskies were led by a community of scorers, paced by two of the best of them all, sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart, who both had 14 points.
Stefanie Dolson added 13 points and nine rebounds. And senior Kelly Faris, her sprained left foot never apparently an issue, added seven points and 12 rebounds.
The Orange were led by senior Kayla Alexander, who had 14 points. Their big problem was rebounding. UConn won that battle, 38-23, getting 10 on the offensive boards.
Tuesday's UConn-Notre Dame affair will be the 11th since the start of the 2010-11 season. The Irish have won six of seven, including both regular season bouts this year.
"We're much different than we were last Monday [when Notre Dame won in three overtimes in South Bend]," said Bria Hartley, who scored 11 points. "Everyone is looking to score now. And that's what makes us a great team, having multiple playmakers on it. It's hard for teams to defend that. And we need to keep the aggressive mentality going in [to Tuesday's game]."
Notre Dame has never won the Big East tournament title. UConn will be playing for its 19th.
"I don't have any thoughts about it," Auriemma said. "I'm not playing and I am going to coach the same way I coached the last two times we played. What I think, how I feel, doesn't matter one iota."
"What's more important is how the players play; how they play the entire game."
Syracuse, one of the most athletic teams in the conference, did not seem intimidated by the task of facing UConn. But the Huskies had too many options for the Orange to effectively squeeze.
But Syracuse hung tough. In the second half, down by 19, the Orange rolled off a 13-3 run that cut the Huskies lead to 49-40 with less than 12 minutes to play.
By this time, Auriemma's sport coat was as neatly folded on a chair as his arms were across his chest.
Brianna Butler's three from the right corner kept Syracuse within 10 (55-45) with 9:26 to play. But as she usually does, Mosqueda-Lewis ended the threat with a pair of three-pointers. And with 3:55 to play, despite four fouls on Dolson, the lead was again a comfortable 14.
"We had very good continuity in the first half," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "And in the second half, things kind of stopped working for us."
UConn led 9-7 early on before a 6-0 run put initial distance between the teams. The Huskies were getting points from everyone and made 14 of 27 shots in the first half.
Dolson (nine points), Mosqueda-Lewis (eight), Stewart (eight) and Hartley (seven) shared the wealth while also holding the Orange to just 10 of 29 from the floor.
As UConn's lead began to grow, it was almost as interesting to watch Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman plead his case with the officials, who called only two fouls on the Huskies in the first half.
Those familiar with UConn's long lament about its treatment during its Notre Dame games likely understood the irony as Hillman pleaded his case.
Only four fouls were called on the Huskies in the first 24 minutes as UConn built a 42-27 lead. The Huskies were whistled only nine times (Syracuse just 10), and the Orange ended with one more free throw, 13-12.
Alexander, the All-Big East center who scored 34 points in Sunday's quarterfinal win over Villanova, scored only four points in 14 first-half minutes and had a lot of trouble reaching rebounds.
If not for four three-pointers, the Syracuse deficit would have been greater than 15.
And UConn was pounding the glass, something Mosqueda-Lewis said was one of the best parts of Sunday's quarterfinal roll of DePaul.
Faris, as if she didn't even have a sprained foot, grabbed eight of UConn's 22 boards in the half and played 36 minutes in the game.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun