On Friday, the Huskies seemed finished near the end of regulation, trailing by 79-74 with 21.3 seconds left. But Napheesa Collier (24 points) hit a 3-pointer, and Kia Nurse stole an inbound pass and drove for a layup to tie the score, forcing five extra minutes.
In overtime, Notre Dame (34-3) drew ahead again, and UConn responded again. A 3-pointer by the Huskies’ Crystal Dangerfield tied the score at 89-89 with 27 seconds left. Notre Dame called timeout with 13 seconds remaining and then, with overtime expiring, worked the ball to Ogunbowale (27 points) on the right side of the court, just inside the 3-point line. Her shot drew only net, and Notre Dame had its stirring victory. Jackie Young led the Irish with her career high of 32 points.
Importantly for the Irish, a deep familiarity with the Huskies has developed over the years, as Notre Dame created self-assurance and stonewashed any apprehension through an annual matchup in the regular season, and with regularity, another meeting in the tournament.
“They’re just another team,” guard Marina Mabrey said.
As partners in the old Big East Conference, the teams once played as many as four times a season. Their coaches — Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and UConn’s Geno Auriemma — obsessively followed each other’s performances. The rivalry became the most enthralling in women’s college basketball. It grew heated, sometimes to the point of bitterness.
Now they are in different leagues — the Irish play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Huskies in the American Athletic Conference — and the rivalry is less intense, but no less predictive of deep runs in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Notre Dame prevailed over UConn in the semifinals in 2001, when the Irish won their only national title, and did it again in 2011 and 2012, as well as on Friday.
For the second consecutive year, UConn failed to reach the championship game. Last year, defeat came on a stunning jumper by Mississippi State in overtime that ended the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak. Again, the Huskies have been left to contemplate going home empty-handed, this time despite having won 147 of their last 149 games.
Meanwhile, women’s college basketball was left to deliberate whether UConn’s stumble represented an anomaly or a hint of something larger — the beginning of a shift toward greater parity in the game, which has developed on a track parallel to the men’s game.
The men’s N.C.A.A. tournament began in 1939, the women’s in 1982. In the first 37 years of the men’s tournament, Coach John Wooden and U.C.L.A. won 10 titles. In the first 37 years of the women’s tournament, Auriemma and UConn have won 11 titles.
Will UConn’s dominance begin to fade, as U.C.L.A.’s did? It is far too early to tell, said Coach Joanne P. McCallie of Duke, which lost to UConn in the semifinals of the Albany Regional. UConn has signed the nation’s top recruit for next season, Christyn Williams, a 5-foot-11 guard from Arkansas. And Auriemma, who just turned 64, has hinted that he might coach until he is 70.
As volleyball rises in popularity, siphoning some of the overall basketball talent pool, McCallie said, high-profile brands like UConn and Auriemma might see their recruiting advantages increase as other universities compete for a shrinking number of top players.
UConn is still the “king and queen and leader of the pack,” McCallie said. “Let’s look at the next four years. That will be the pattern to evaluate.”
Still, there is undeniable equalizing occurring in women’s college basketball.
Tennessee, an eight-time national champion, has not reached the Final Four since Coach Pat Summitt retired and died from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This season, Tennessee lost at home in the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time. South Carolina, the 2017 champion, and Mississippi State, in the Final Four for a second consecutive season, have supplanted Tennessee as powers in the Southeastern Conference.
“Any time you can show some parity in our game on any level, it’s always good,” said Dawn Staley, the coach of South Carolina, which won last year’s title. A leveling of the playing field “gives other coaches hope to keep on coaching.”
Oregon, U.C.L.A. and Oregon State have loosened the stranglehold that Stanford, a two-time national champion and a Final Four regular, once had on the Pac-12 Conference. And two 11th seeds — Buffalo and Central Michigan — reached the round of 16 in this year’s tournament.
Buffalo provided a shrewd example of the recruiting that midmajors have undertaken to compete with opponents in the so-called Power 5 conferences. Of Buffalo’s 14 players this season, seven were international — four from Australia, two from Canada and one from Nigeria.
“Women are not just saying I’m going to Connecticut; they’re going everywhere now,” Buffalo Coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. “My colleagues are not saying, ‘Come play for me because I’m at this school.’ They’re saying, ‘Come play with me because of this relationship I’m building with you.’ We’re not looking at buildings anymore; we’re looking at people.”
True parity in women’s college basketball may not arrive, McCallie said, until attendance is reliable enough during the early rounds of the N.C.A.A. tournament for all teams to play on neutral courts. For now, the top four seeds in each region are eligible to play the first and second rounds on their home courts.
“I think the only thing we have trouble with is where we play, the neutral court versus the home court, because we’ve got to draw fans,” McCallie said. “I think eventually that would be the next step.”
Before the tournament began, Auriemma spoke to a group of UConn fans: Enjoy the Huskies’ success, he told them, because “this isn’t going to last forever.”