Pursuit of perfection started long ago


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Not sure when the phrase "been there, done that" came into the English lexicon. But suffice to say, we've all let loose a "been there, done that" about something that, to a first-timer, is still a case of "I can't believe I'm really here!"

In regard to the Women's Final Four, there is a balancing act for those programs who become used to participating.

"You never take it for granted," Notre Dame assistant coach Beth Cunningham said, "but at the same time, it's become an expectation."

That's the case for three of the teams here in Music City, with UConn in the Final Four for the 15th time (and seventh in a row), Stanford for the 12th time and Notre Dame for the sixth time.

Of course, what UConn (38-0) and Notre Dame (36-0) have going for them, too, is that neither has lost a game this season. But as the two "pursuits of perfection" continue for the Huskies and Fighting Irish, it's worth taking note of where they started.

Which is not this past November -- at least not philosophically. Yes, these two unbeaten paths began then, with UConn defeating Hartford and Notre Dame topping UNC Wilmington in their respective season openers.

But the roots go back in history, and that's particularly success-filled for UConn. The Huskies have four perfect records among their eight championship seasons, starting with the 1995 team. They've also had two title teams that had just one loss.

When current UConn assistant Shea Ralph came to play for the Huskies in the fall of '96, the Huskies had already been to the Final Four three times. So her expectations were suitably sky-high: Go to Final Fours and win national championships.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma told her those were definitely goals to strive for, but not to count on.

"One of the things I liked is how honest he was about the journey and how hard it is to do," Ralph said. "But how rewarding in the end it is -- that's something we really try to get across to our players every day.

"I remember as a player, I felt completely prepared. I never walked out on the court in a situation with the gravity of the Final Four and didn't have a good feel for what was going to happen. It's important to enjoy these events: We have great dinners and have fun team activities that we do, but when we go on the court, it's all business."

In Ralph's freshman season, the Huskies were undefeated all the way until the regional final against Tennessee. However, she had suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier in the tournament and wasn't able to play. The Lady Vols upset the Huskies in that Elite Eight matchup, so UConn's first loss of 1996-97 was also its last.

That scenario -- a bitter end after season-long run of perfection -- is going to happen this year to either UConn or Notre Dame, or both if Stanford and Maryland get their way.

"I remember feeling crushed," Ralph said about that lone loss in '97. "And I felt terrible that I couldn't help."

That's a situation that Notre Dame senior Natalie Achonwa might face here, having been so big a part of everything the Irish have done in their perfect season but now out with an injury.

Certainly, though, Achonwa can take pride in being the most accomplished class ever at Notre Dame, making the Final Four each of her four seasons.

Cunningham has the perspective of when Notre Dame finally broke through for its first Final Four in 1997 and did so as an underdog. The Irish were the No. 6 seed and pulled three consecutive upsets -- over No. 3 seed Texas, No. 2 Alabama and No. 5 George Washington -- to get to that Final Four.

"It was such a thrill and so exciting," said Cunningham, who was a senior guard for the Irish then. "Now to have a situation where a class here has gone four years in a row, it's hard to put into words how much that means."

Cunningham spent the first 11 years of her coaching career at VCU, then came back to her alma mater in 2012.

"I was part of it, then I was watching it from afar and now I'm a part of it again," she said of Notre Dame's success. "Getting to the Final Four has become our mentality."

But the perfect records? The Huskies and Irish both seem to regard them as incidental.

"I don't think we think about it that much," UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart said. "If someone were to ask me, 'Does it feel like you're 38-0?' -- it doesn't 'feel' like it. I don't think we're chasing perfection right now. We're just focusing on Sunday's game.

"After the season is over, if we finish undefeated, we'll appreciate it more than we do right now."

Notre Dame's closest brush with perfection came in 2001, when the Irish won the national championship with a 34-2 record. Their two losses that season were by one point to Rutgers and by two points (on a buzzer-beater) to UConn.

Last year, the Irish also had just two losses, but both of those were by double digits. They fell to Baylor by 12 points early in the season and then by 18 points to UConn in the national semifinals.

By that point last year, the Huskies were in full-on national-championship mode, which had not been the case all season. But UConn comes into this Final Four as the favorite, even though there is another unbeaten team here.

"This year, there's been so much hype surrounding the team because of what happened in last year's tournament and we're undefeated," Auriemma said. "I think this team, for whatever it's worth, is a lot more confident and sure of itself than last year's team.

"Last year, we were determined, but there was still a little bit of doubt. I get the feeling from this particular team that there isn't any doubt in their minds that we're the best team here. Whether that plays out, I don't know. Right now, that's the mindset I see."