March 28, 2011
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) – Moments before they climbed the blue stepladder to cut down the net, Skylar Diggins and her Notre Dame teammates joined arms, formed a circle and did a jig at the free-throw line.
There’s a little history in that step.
The Fighting Irish began kicking up their heels during the 1999-2000 season, turning it into a pregame ritual. They danced all the way to the national title the following year, good reason to turn the ritual into a tradition.
Ten years later, they’re high-stepping it back to the Final Four.
Diggins scored a season-high 24 points with her clutch left-handed shot, steadying the Fighting Irish through the tough moments of their 73-59 victory over Tennessee for the regional championship on Monday night.
Notre Dame (30-7) will play either BIG EAST rival Connecticut or Duke in the semifinals. No question who they prefer.
“We didn’t feel like underdogs. We went in expecting to win.”
“We’re definitely cheering for the BIG EAST,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “We’d like to have two Final Four teams from the BIG EAST.”
UConn beat them 79-76 at Notre Dame and 78-57 at home during the regular season, then again 73-64 at home in the conference tournament. Given what happened on Monday night, the Fighting Irish figure the math is on their side.
The second-seeded Irish were 0-20 all time against top-seeded Tennessee (34-3), taking 28 years of beatings. They seemed to be pretty even teams with contrasting styles heading into game No. 21 in their one-sided series – the Lady Vols with muscle upfront and young guards, while the Fighting Irish do it with hustle on defense and a fast-paced attack.
Notre Dame had the best guard on the floor, one who likes to play disc jockey in her spare time. Diggins sure was a hit in the regional.
The sophomore point guard had a career-high 12 assists in a semifinal win over Oklahoma, distributing the ball to open shooters. With the Lady Vols clamping down, Diggins asserted herself and kept Notre Dame ahead most of the way – Tennessee led for only 2 minutes, 43 seconds in the first half.
“In a way, I’m just living my dream,” said Diggins, a South Bend native who became only the second Notre Dame player to reach 1,000 points in her second season.
The Fighting Irish weren’t sure whether they’d have senior forward Becca Bruszewski, the team’s emotional leader who sprained her left knee during the semifinal win over Oklahoma. She played 37 minutes wearing a brace, scored 13 points and had a team-high eight rebounds, then danced the jig on her bum knee.
Becca Bruszewski looks for a shot against Tennessee forward Vicki Baugh. Bruszewski – who didn’t practice Sunday due to a knee injury – scored 13 points.
“This is an unreal feeling,” Bruszewski said.
For Tennessee, too.
Skylar Diggins led all players with 24 points.
The Lady Vols had won their past 25 games, the second-longest streak in school history. They hadn’t lost since falling at Baylor on Dec. 14, but were off their game in Dayton. Coach Pat Summitt had to yell at them at halftime of a close win over Ohio State.
She fumed on the sideline Monday with arms crossed as her young players tightened up and her team unraveled.
“Obviously I’m very upset, I’m very disappointed in our basketball team,” Summitt said. “I don’t think we came here with the focus. Don’t ask me why. I’m kind of at a loss for words.
“We’ve got a ways to go, obviously. We were exposed today.”
Freshman guard Meighan Simmons went 1 for 11 from the field and finished with two points. Tennessee shot 33 percent from the field and had 19 turnovers.
“There were times we got so overanxious,” Summitt said. “Being at this point and trying to get to a Final Four was probably too much for the younger players.”
“This is what you work for.”
Not for Diggins, who didn’t hesitate to shoot whenever Tennessee tried to make a comeback.
“No question Skylar Diggins was the player that made them go, and we don’t have a guard that plays that way,” Summitt said. “And guard play is very important at this time of year. She was terrific, without any doubt the best guard on the floor. She energizes that team. She was the real force. She does what she has to do.”
So has Notre Dame during its run to the third Final Four in school history.
“I think there were some questions early,” McGraw said. “When you lose four starters, you’re going to have to figure out who’s going to step up for you. I think the growth of this team is one of the best of any I’ve coached.”
— ND —
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to its third NCAA Women’s Final Four, adding to previous trips in 1997 and 2001 … the Fighting Irish were the second Notre Dame team in 24 hours to reach the NCAA national semifinals in their respective sport, following on the heels of the hockey team’s berth in the NCAA Frozen Four (not to mention the fencing team clinching its eighth NCAA national championship) … Notre Dame is the 17th school to earn three trips to the NCAA Women’s Final Four in its 30-year history, as well as the second BIG EAST Conference school (along with Connecticut) and second school from the state of Indiana (along with Purdue) … now 3-0 all-time in NCAA regional finals, the Fighting Irish posted their largest win in a regional final, having won their other two Elite Eight games by 10 points (62-52 over George Washington in 1997 in Columbia, S.C.) and eight points (72-64 over Vanderbilt in 2001 in Denver) … Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw is the ninth active NCAA Division I coach to take her team to three Final Fours … the Fighting Irish registered their 30th win of the season, the third time in school history they have reached that milestone following their previous two Final Four seasons (31-7 in 1996-97; 34-2 in 2000-01) … Monday’s win was the fourth all-time for Notre Dame against an opponent ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll (Tennessee was No. 4) — the other three wins all came against Connecticut (ranked No. 1 in 2000-01 when the third-ranked Fighting Irish won 92-76 in the regular season on Jan. 15 and a No. 2 ND side earned a 90-75 win in the Final Four (national semifinals) on March 30 at St. Louis; ranked No. 4 in 2003-04 when an unranked Notre Dame squad won 66-51 on Jan. 13 at Purcell Pavilion) … the 14-point margin was the largest for the Fighting Irish against an AP Top 10 squad since Jan. 23, 2005, when Notre Dame downed No. 6 Rutgers, 63-47 at Purcell Pavilion … Notre Dame is 7-7 against ranked opponents this season … the Fighting Irish earned their first victory in 21 tries against Tennessee, ending their longest active series losing streak (Penn State now stands as the lone opponent Notre Dame has yet to defeat in a series of at least five games) … Notre Dame held Tennessee to a series-low 59 points, while the Fighting Irish logged their second-best point total against the Lady Vols (behind only an 85-82 loss on Jan. 12, 1992, at Purcell Pavilion) … the Fighting Irish are 11-31 (.262) against the Southeastern Conference, but have split their last 16 games against SEC opponents (including two games this year) … Notre Dame also is 3-4 all-time against the SEC in the NCAA Championship, with two of those wins coming in regional title games (2001 vs. Vanderbilt, 2011 vs. Tennessee), and the third in the Sweet 16 (1997 regional semifinal vs. Alabama) … the Fighting Irish improve to 31-16 (.660) all-time in NCAA tournament play, including an 8-2 (.800) record as a No. 2 seed … Notre Dame rises to 18-2 (.900) all-time in NCAA Championship action when holding its opponents to 60 points or fewer, a ledger that includes three of four games in this year’s tournament … Notre Dame broke out its alternate green road uniforms for Monday’s game, evening its all-time record in the NCAA tournament at 7-7 when featuring the “wearing o’ the green” — it was the first Fighting Irish postseason win in the greens since March 25, 2008, when Notre Dame downed Oklahoma, 79-75 in overtime in a second-round game at West Lafayette, Ind. … the Fighting Irish are 18-4 (.818) all-time when playing in the city of Dayton … sophomore guard Skylar Diggins became the 28th member of Notre Dame’s 1,000-Point Club with her game-high 24 points on Monday … Diggins (now 25th all-time with 1,018 points) is just the second Notre Dame player to score 1,000 points before the end of her sophomore season, with Beth Morgan hitting that total exactly with her final basket as a sophomore in 1994-95 … Diggins hit the 1,000-point mark in her 72nd career game, tying with another former South Bend Washington High School alum Jacqueline Batteast (2001-05) for the fourth-fastest run to a grand in program history (Morgan did it in 56 games, Shari Matvey needed 66 games from 1979-83, and Ruth Riley hit the mark in 71 games from 1997-2001) … Diggins was named the NCAA Dayton Regional Most Outstanding Player, a feat also earned by former Fighting Irish All-Americans Katryna Gaither (1997 East Regional) and Riley (2001 Midwest Regional) … senior forward Becca Bruszewski and junior guard Natalie Novosel joined Diggins on the NCAA Dayton Regional All-Tournament Team … assistant coach Niele Ivey is the common thread between all three of Notre Dame’s Final Four squads, having been a player on the 1997 and 2001 teams (she missed all but the first five games of the 1996-97 season with a torn ACL) and not only serving as an assistant this year, but drawing the scouting assignment for the victory over Tennessee … members of the Notre Dame travel party learned prior to Monday’s regional final that the locker room they were using at the University of Dayton Arena previously was used by the VCU men’s basketball team when it competed at the NCAA Men’s First Four in Dayton two weeks earlier, the first stop on the Rams’ run to their initial Final Four berth in Houston this weekend … Notre Dame has an extremely limited allotment of tickets for this year’s NCAA Women’s Final Four, with those going on sale to Fighting Irish women’s basketball season ticket holders only on a first-come, first-served basis at 8:30 a.m. (ET) Tuesday, March 29, through Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office (located inside Gate 9 of Purcell Pavilion or by calling 574-631-7356) — order limit is a maximum of two tickets per season-ticket holder … Anthony Travel also is offering a fan bus excursion to the Women’s Final Four in Indianapolis — visit their special Final Four trip web site today by CLICKING HERE, as spots will be going fast and once both buses have filled for the trip, no further orders will be accepted.