NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Women's college basketball has been looking for that watershed moment when a player or game could transcend the sport.
It may have finally found it.
For the first time in the NCAA tournament — men or women — unbeaten teams will square off for the national championship. Perennial women's powerhouse programs and former Big East rivals UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0) will play for the title Tuesday night.
But this isn't the first time the game has stepped into the national spotlight.
The great rivalry between UConn and Tennessee and its Hall of Fame coaches Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt drew national attention — except they haven't scheduled games against each other for years.
But the sport hasn't moved on, and the casual interest has.
"The women's tournament has continued to get great buzz, but the real challenge is how fast it can develop," said Robert Boland, who is the Professor and Academic Chair of the sports management program at NYU's Tisch Center. "The men's tournament was being won through the '70s by UCLA, but it kept growing and growing and exploded with the Magic-Bird game. The historical parallel is sort of where the women's game is now. For the sport to sustain interest, it needs the players to move on and have compelling rivalries in the WNBA.
"For women's basketball, college is the pre-eminent level."
And that hasn't been enough to grow the sport.
There have been seven undefeated national champions, and either Notre Dame or UConn will become the eighth after their unprecedented meeting. There have also been special college players, from Cheryl Miller and Chamique Holdsclaw, to Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. Yet neither combination could really make the sport more mainstream.
The hope is this time could be different.
There has never been a title game with both teams chasing perfection. It doesn't hurt that there at the center of it are charismatic coaches and programs that everyone knows — and that really don't care for one another. The coaches — UConn's Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw — added to the drama by exchanging a couple of verbal jabs at Monday's pre-game press conference.
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