Skylar Diggins piled up game highs of 24 points, nine assists and five steals.

#2 Irish Back To Final Four After Downing #5 Duke, 87-76

April 2, 2013

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP)Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame are headed back to the Final Four for another rematch with Connecticut.

Before looking ahead, though, they wanted to soak in their third consecutive trip to the national semifinals.

“We’re enjoying the moment right now,” Diggins said when asked about UConn. “We’ll talk about that later.”

Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker celebrate.

The flashy left-hander shook off early foul trouble to score 24 points, and the Fighting Irish rallied to beat Duke 87-76 on Tuesday night to earn their third straight trip to the Final Four. The Irish have lost in the past two national-championship games.

“I want to win a championship for coach (Muffet) McGraw bad,” Diggins, one of just two seniors on the Notre Dame roster, said. “When you have a coach who believes in you so much, I’d do anything for her.”

Kayla McBride added 18 points while Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa had 17 each as the Fighting Irish (35-1) won their school-record 30th consecutive game, earning a fourth meeting with the Huskies this season.

It’s also the third straight meeting between the two BIG EAST rivals in the Final Four. The Irish won both of those and have dominated the series lately, winning seven of the past eight meetings. Notre Dame swept UConn in all three meetings this season in thrilling fashion, winning in overtime and by 1 and 2 points.

The Irish had to rally past Duke to earn the right to get there again.

“I want to win a championship for Coach McGraw bad. When you have a coach who believes in you so much, I’d do anything for her.”

Trailing by six at the half and looking disjointed without Diggins on the court, Notre Dame got back to playing the way it likes after the break and took control with a 15-2 run early in the second half to take a 50-42 lead.

“We talked in the beginning about leaving with no regrets,” Diggins said, adding that the first half could hardly have gone worse. “I think we were all pressing a little bit. We weren’t playing like we talked about.”

Diggins started the run with her fourth 3-pointer of the game and followed quickly with a no-look feed to Natalie Achonwa, who also grabbed 13 rebounds, for a layup that had drew an impressed roar from the crowd at Old Dominion’s Constant Center. Diggins added a steal and a layup, and McBride finished the burst with another 3-pointer.

Duke trailed by as many as 16 before closing the gap only slightly in the desperate final minutes.

Jewell Loyd

“It bothers me a little bit that we had to fight so hard at the end. It was like, ‘Where’s that been?” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “You’ve got to play 40 minutes at this level. It was inspiring but also a little irritating.”

The Blue Devils, who lost in the regional finals for the fourth straight year, hurt their cause with 21 turnovers.

In the first half, the game developed better than Duke (33-3) could have hoped.

Diggins was whistled for two fouls in the first 4:10 and went to the bench – and after McBride hit a pair of jumpers, the Fighting Irish looked out of sorts. They extended their lead to 17-13 on a 3-pointer by Kaila Turner and two free throws by Ariel Braker, then went more than seven minutes without a point.

A free throw by Elizabeth Williams for Duke ignited a 13-0 run that took more than six of those minutes. Tricia Liston, who led the Blue Devils with 19 points, scored eight in the burst, and Chloe Wells finished it with a 12-foot jumper.

Muffet McGraw dances a celebratory Irish jig with her team.

“I think they were outworking us,” said Diggins, who earned AP All-America honors for the second straight season earlier on Tuesday. “I’ve never seen that from my team. They were getting hustle scrap points. I couldn’t wait to get in that locker room. We had to light a fire. We set the tone on defense and got some stops and played our game.”

Getting their leader back helped greatly.

“Sky’s the best point guard in the country, and she changes the game in everything she does,” Achonwa said. “Her being off the court for 20 seconds changes the game.”

Diggins returned with about 8 minutes to go in the half and while playing passively on defense to avoid a third foul, hit three 3-pointers in a span of 2:16, cutting a nine-point deficit to 32-31 with 1:07 left.

A basket by Williams and Wells’ 3 just before the half gave Duke a 37-31 advantage.

The weekend was a homecoming for Williams, a Virginia Beach native, but Duke’s scoring leader missed several shots from in close. She finished 3 for 9 and scored 8 points, roughly half her average.

“It’s really hard. We felt like we deserved to be here but we didn’t play a full game,” Williams said.

Haley Peters added 15 points and 10 rebounds for Duke, and Richa Jackson scored 12.

— ND —

POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to the NCAA Women’s Final Four for the fifth time in program history and the third consecutive season (1997, 2001, 2011, 2012, 2013) … the Fighting Irish are the seventh team in NCAA Championship history to make five Final Four appearances, matching the totals posted by Georgia and LSU; only Tennessee (18), Connecticut (14), Stanford (11) and Louisiana Tech (10) have more … Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw is the sixth coach in NCAA Championship history to guide her team to five Final Four berths, joining Tennessee’s Pat Summitt (18), Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma (14), Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (11), Louisiana Tech’s Leon Barmore (9) and Georgia’s Andy Landers (5) in that elite company … Notre Dame is the eighth different school to make three consecutive Final Four appearances … the Fighting Irish are 5-0 all-time in NCAA Championship regional finals (Elite Eight games), winning four of those by double digits … Notre Dame has tied the program record with its 35th victory of the season, matching the total set by last year’s club during its 35-4 run to the NCAA national championship game … the Fighting Irish registered their 30th consecutive win, the second-longest winning streak by a Notre Dame athletics team in a fully-sponsored NCAA Championship sport in the 126-year history of the University (softball won 33 in a row in 2001, while Tuesday’s win pushed this year’s women’s basketball team past the 1965-67 men’s tennis squad that reeled off 29 consecutive victories) … Notre Dame is 12-1 this season against ranked opponents, including a 6-1 record against top-10 teams … the Fighting Irish improve to 41-18 (.695) all-time in NCAA Championship play, with a 15-1 (.938) record as a No. 1 seed and 27-5 (.844) mark as the higher seed … Notre Dame has scored at least 70 points in 20 of its last 23 NCAA Championship games, going 17-3 (.850) in those outings … Notre Dame is 44-17 (.721) against the current Atlantic Coast Conference membership, with a 24-13 (.649) record away from home and 9-3 (.750) mark at neutral sites … for the second consecutive season, the Fighting Irish defeated an ACC opponent in the Elite Eight, following last year’s 80-49 win over another fifth-ranked team, Maryland, in the Raleigh Regional final … Notre Dame is 6-1 all-time against Duke and has won the past four series games with the Blue Devils (along with both postseason matchups, having previously won 74-67 in the 1986 NWIT third-place game in Amarillo, Texas) … the Fighting Irish are 23-0 this season when they have four players score in double figures, and own a 75-4 (.949) in such games during the past four seasons (2009-10 to present) … since joining the BIG EAST Conference in 1995-96, Notre Dame is 185-6 (.969) when it scores 80 points in a game, including a 62-2 (.969) record in the past four seasons … the Fighting Irish scored 56 points in the second half, the most by a Notre Dame squad in any single half of NCAA Championship action, exceeding the previous mark of 55 points in the second half against Alabama on March 22, 1997, in an East Regional semifinal in Columbia, S.C. (a game best known for a record-setting 36-point performance by current Fighting Irish associate coach Beth Morgan Cunningham) … Notre Dame connected on a season-high nine three-pointers against Duke, its best total from beyond the arc since Feb. 5, 2012, when it made nine treys in a win over DePaul at Purcell Pavilion … the nine three-pointers also tied a program record for triples in an NCAA tournament game, a mark first set against Oklahoma on March 26, 2011, in a Dayton Regional semifinal victory at Dayton, Ohio … Notre Dame’s 25 assists were one shy of the program record for helpers in an NCAA Championship contest, having dished out 26 assists on March 24 in a Norfolk Region first-round win over UT-Martin in Iowa City, Iowa … the Fighting Irish trailed by six points at halftime, matching their largest deficit at the break this season (also 33-27 vs. Baylor on Dec. 5 and 34-28 vs. Connecticut on March 4; both games played at Purcell Pavilion) … for the second time this season, junior forward Natalie Achonwa has strung together three consecutive double-doubles, notching her third in a row on Tuesday with 17 points and 13 rebounds against Duke — she pulled off a similar feat on Nov. 20 vs. Mercer (22/10), Nov. 23 at UCLA (10/10) and Nov. 29 at Central Michigan (11/10) … Achonwa is the first Notre Dame player with three consecutive double-doubles in the NCAA Championship since 2004, when Jacqueline Batteast did so against Missouri State (17/11), Middle Tennessee (27/12) and Penn State (22/12) … Achonwa has a school-record 19 double-doubles this season (including eight in 13 games against ranked opponents), three more than Katryna Gaither’s previous mark set in 1996-97 (during a 38-game season) … senior guard/co-captain Skylar Diggins was named the Norfolk Regional Most Outstanding Player, the third consecutive year she has taken home top honors at an NCAA regional … Diggins was joined on the NCAA Norfolk Regional All-Tournament Team by Achonwa and junior guard Kayla McBride — all three players were similarly honored on last year’s Raleigh Regional All-Tournament Team … for the third consecutive season (and fourth time following an initial matchup in 2001), Notre Dame and Connecticut will play in the NCAA Women’s Final Four national semifinals, taking the court at New Orleans Arena at approximately 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT Sunday live on ESPN and ESPN HD — it will mark the first time in tournament history the same two teams have competed in three consecutive national semifinal games … ticket packages for the NCAA Women’s Final Four will go on sale only for Notre Dame women’s basketball season ticket holders at 8:30 a.m. (ET) Wednesday morning at Notre Dame’s Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office; tickets are $200 for the all-session package (three games) and can be purchased by calling (574) 631-7356 or visiting the ticket windows at Gate 9 of Purcell Pavilion — tickets may be picked up any time between 1 p.m. (ET) Wednesday and 11 a.m. (ET) Thursday, after which time any remaining tickets may be claimed on game day at New Orleans Arena beginning at 5:30 p.m. (ET)/4:30 p.m. (CT), one hour before the first national semifinal between California and Louisville tips off.