March 7, 2011
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Skylar Diggins was only 10 years old the last time Notre Dame was in the Big East championship game.
Growing up in Indiana she vividly recalled it.
“I remember I was a fan watching it,” the sophomore guard said. “I believe Sue Bird hit the shot and they wrote a book about it. I don’t like that book.”
Now, 10 years later, she’ll get a chance to lead the Irish to their first title as No. 10 Notre Dame will face UConn for the championship Tuesday night.
“We know it’s a great opportunity for our program,” Diggins said.
She had 19 points and made several big plays down the stretch to help the Irish beat No. 9 DePaul 71-67 on Monday night in the semifinals of the BIG EAST tournament.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw appeared surprised to be reminded that the famous 2001 title game was her team’s last appearance in the championship.
“It’s very fitting,” she said. “It’s great to be back in the championship game.”
The Irish (26-6) had to survive another slugfest with their Midwestern rival to get there and earn their first win over a top 10 team since 2006.
Trailing 65-64 with 1:43 left, Diggins hit a lay-in to give the Irish a one-point lead. After Sam Quigley missed a lay-in, Diggins found Natalie Achonwa for a basket to make it 68-65.
Keisha Hampton got DePaul (27-6) within one with 27.6 left.
Diggins hit one of two free throws and Hampton turned it over on the next possession. Brittany Mallory hit two free throws with 2.5 seconds left to seal the win.
Hampton scored 31 points for DePaul.
“Hampton, wow. We couldn’t stop her,” McGraw said.
Connecticut beat Rutgers 75-51 in the first semifinal. It’s not often that a UConn game feels like a warm-up act, but as has often been the case over the last few years the Huskies pretty much had it decided by the half.
DePaul and Notre Dame have built quite the rivalry over the past few seasons. Five of the previous seven meetings have been decided by five points or less for the Midwestern schools who are a short 2-hour drive apart.
“Them being close to us and being such a good team we know when we play them it will be competitive,” Diggins said. “We have players from Chi-town. Being at a neutral site it was still a competitive game and we were luckily enough to come up with a victory.”
DePaul coach Doug Bruno agreed that the proximity of the Midwestern Catholic schools adds to the passion.
“It’s a great rivalry and these players understand the intensity of the rivalry,” he said. “It means more than just another college basketball game.”
The two teams met last Monday and the Blue Demons rallied for a 70-69 victory as Felicia Chester hit a shot with just under 6 seconds left. That gave them the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
“This is kind of game you’re going to play,” Bruno said. “It’s a tough basketball game that came down to a couple of possessions just like it did eight days ago, today we weren’t on top.”
The semifinal game was more of the same. Each time one team would make a run, the other responded. There were 11 lead changes in the second half alone.
Notre Dame erased a six-point halftime deficit and took its own six-point lead, 57-51.
DePaul battled back to tie the game at 57 on Hampton’s free throw with 7:25 left.
The teams traded leads over the next five minutes.
The Irish led 61-60 when Becca Bruszewski got fouled on a lay-in. She limped off the court to the locker room and Natalie Novosel made one of the two free throws with 3:39 left to make it a two-point game.
“I’m not sure what Becca’s status is,” McGraw said. “I haven’t talked to the trainer but she’s doubtful for tomorrow. I would say it was her ribs. She took a hard shot and hard fall.”
Hampton responded with a three-point play to give the Blue Demons a 63-62 advantage. After Diggins hit two free throws, Hampton had another layup to make it 65-64 with 1:43 left.
The Irish lost to Connecticut twice during the regular season, including a 79-76 home defeat.
“The first game we saw we could play with them and could beat them,” Diggins said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere and hopefully we can get a win for Coach McGraw.”
The Irish are 0-8 against UConn in the BIG EAST tournament, including four championship games.
DePaul was trying to advance to its first title game.
— ND —
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to its fifth BIG EAST Championship final, and first since 2001 (a 78-76 loss to Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.) … Notre Dame is 5-4 (.556) all-time in BIG EAST semifinals … in all four occasions when the Fighting Irish have been seeded third in the BIG EAST Championship, they have advanced to the tournament championship game, having also done in 1996, 1997 and 1999 … this will mark the fourth of Notre Dame’s five BIG EAST Championship finals appearances to be played in the state of Connecticut (1996, 1997 and 2001 all were played at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs) … the Fighting Irish improve to 19-15 (.559) all-time in the BIG EAST Championship, including a 6-9 (.400) record as the lower seeded team … Monday’s game represented the 14th time in Notre Dame’s last 18 BIG EAST tournament games that the margin was 11 points or fewer, and the seventh in that span to be decided by single digits … the Fighting Irish also have seen more than half (19) of their 34 career games at the BIG EAST Championship decided by 11 points or fewer, with Notre Dame going 9-10 (.474) in those games, including a 2-0 record this season … Notre Dame moves to 7-11 (.389) all-time at Hartford’s XL Center, including a 7-5 (.583) record against teams other than Connecticut (which calls the arena home during the regular season) … the Fighting Irish earn their first win over an opponent ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll (DePaul rose to No. 9 earlier in the day) since Dec. 6, 2006, when Notre Dame downed No. 10 Purdue, 67-58 at Purcell Pavilion … it also was the first time Notre Dame defeated an AP Top 10 team away from home since Jan. 30, 2005, when the Fighting Irish downed No. 9 Connecticut, 65-59 in Storrs (the last time Notre Dame defeated ranked ninth or higher, as well as the last time the Fighting Irish defeated the Huskies) … Notre Dame rises to 5-6 this season against ranked opponents … Notre Dame posts its fifth win in six games against DePaul, trimming the series deficit against the Blue Demons to 16-19 all-time, with Monday marking the first time in three postseason meetings (two in the BIG EAST Championship) that the Fighting Irish came out on top … Notre Dame also has held DePaul to fewer than 70 points in five of the past six series games … the Fighting Irish are 7-5 (.583) against the Blue Demons since DePaul joined the BIG EAST in 2005-06 … eight of those 12 series games under the BIG EAST banner have been decided by single digits, including six of the past eight (and both this season) … in the long history of the series, which dates back 35 games to the 1978-79 season, the aggregate point total remains remarkable close — DePaul has scored 2,389 points (68.3 ppg.), while Notre Dame has scored 2,366 points (67.6 ppg.) … Monday’s game represented the second time in four tries this season that the Fighting Irish rallied for a victory after trailing at halftime (Notre Dame trailed Gonzaga, 35-33 before coming back to win 70-61 on Dec. 29 at the State Farm Holiday Hoops Classic in Seattle) … for the second consecutive game (and just the fourth time all season), Notre Dame had just two double-figure scorers — prior to this year’s BIG EAST Championship, the Fighting Irish were 0-2 this season when having fewer than three double-figure scorers in a game (76-65 loss at No. 2/3 Baylor on Dec. 1; 78-57 loss at No. 2 Connecticut on Feb. 19).