March 12, 2013
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Skylar Diggins cut the final strand off the net and twirled it around. Finally, Notre Dame had its first BIG EAST tournament championship.
Six previous times the Irish had played Connecticut in the tournament title game and had fallen in each one, including the previous two. Now in the final BIG EAST title game, the Irish were champions.
“It’s special because it’s the last one,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We leave here champions and go home undefeated. To win it here makes it even better.”
Natalie Achonwa’s layup with 1.8 seconds left lifted No. 2 Notre Dame to a 61-59 victory over third-ranked UConn on Tuesday night.
Diggins stole an errant pass from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with 8 seconds left, and after dribbling through a few defenders, found Achonwa for the uncontested lay-in.
Kelly Faris then heaved a desperation attempt from 65 feet that fell harmlessly off the backboard, setting off a wild celebration for the Irish, who have won 26 straight games.
“I’ve had a lot of big wins in my years here – wins against UConn to go to national championship games, it definitely is up there,” Diggins said. “It means a lot not only to me, means a lot to coach and our program.”
The Fighting Irish players, wearing championship hats and T-shirts, set up a dance line to celebrate and did an Irish jig in front of the school band.
“It’s great for our program,” Diggins said. “I’m excited for the team going into the NCAA tournament. This is our coming of age.”
Now with the BIG EAST title, a national championship is the only thing missing from Diggins’ impressive resume.
The Irish (31-1) weren’t going to be denied in their final chance to win that elusive conference championship. Earlier in the day, Notre Dame announced it would be joining the ACC starting next season – a year earlier than expected.
“I’ve had a lot of big wins in my years here – wins against UConn to go to national championship games, it definitely is up there. It means a lot not only to me, means a lot to coach and our program.”
Stefanie Dolson had 18 points and 14 rebounds, while Breanna Stewart had 16 points for UConn (29-4), which had won the last five Big East tournament titles but fell to Notre Dame for the third time this season.
The Huskies trailed 59-53 with 2:55 left before tying it at 59.
“At this point how I played isn’t really in my mind,” Dolson said. “We fought in the second half to tie it up … at the end of the day we didn’t win.”
They had a chance to take the lead but Faris missed a layup. She got her own rebound and after calling a timeout, the Huskies had a chance before Mosqueda-Lewis got caught in the corner and threw the ball away to Diggins, setting up the finish.
The Irish have dominated the series recently with seven victories in the last eight meetings. No team has ever dominated the Huskies like that since UConn won its first national championship in 1995.
The only UConn victory came in the conference title game last season, but the Huskies couldn’t pull off a third straight win over Notre Dame in the tournament championship.
The loss ended a run of 19 straight seasons that Connecticut had won either the regular season or postseason conference title.
These two teams could potentially meet for a fourth time in the NCAA tournament. It would be the third straight season that they would meet four times in one year.
“History has shown that what happens during the regular season doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen in the postseason,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played before a chance of a Connecticut-Notre Dame game. We’re going to get together on Saturday and start preparing for round one of the NCAA tournament. That’s as far as we’re looking towards right now.”
The teams met eight days earlier and the Irish came away with a triple-overtime victory that clinched them their second straight conference regular-season title.
This one – while it didn’t go three overtimes – was thrilling nonetheless; a fitting finale for a conference that has been arguably the best in women’s basketball over the past decade. This was the last game under its current configuration as the basketball schools will break away from the football schools next season. That new basketball conference will keep the BIG EAST name.
“It was a great partnership that produced some memorable moments in a lot of sports. We are very sorry to see the BIG EAST that we knew and grew up in not exist anymore,” Notre Dame vice president/director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said before the game.
Notre Dame appeared to put this one away early.
McBride keyed Notre Dame on a 20-4 run for a 20-8 lead. She had nine points during the burst, barely moving the net on some of her jumpers. The Huskies tried to rally in front of a friendly crowd of 9,000 who were clearly backing UConn despite the team wearing its blue road uniforms.
UConn pulled to 24-22 on a putback by Dolson with 4:52 left in the half. Then it was Loyd’s time to shine. The conference’s freshman of the year scored seven points during an 11-0 run as the Irish opened up a 35-22 advantage. They led 35-26 at the half.
Notre Dame expanded its lead to 39-28 before UConn finally got going. Stewart scored the final four points of an 11-0 run to tie it midway through the second half. The teams traded baskets over the next 6 minutes with neither able to build any sort of lead.
Diggins, the two-time reigning BIG EAST Player of the Year, finally gave Notre Dame a four-point lead with a floater in the lane with 5:22 left to set up the frantic finish.
Auriemma had inserted Stewart into the lineup for the first time since the middle of December. Stewart had averaged just 7.5 points against the Irish this season in the two previous meetings, making just six of her 24 shots.
She had played very well in the first two games of the BIG EAST tournament, and continued it against the Irish.
UConn didn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first time since the 2002 NCAA championship game.
— ND —
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame wins its first BIG EAST Championship title in its final season in the conference it joined 18 seasons ago in 1995-96 … it’s also the sixth postseason conference tournament title won by the Fighting Irish and first since 1994 when they earned the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now Horizon League) postseason crown with a 72-63 win over Xavier at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis … Notre Dame sweeps the regular season and postseason conference titles for the fifth time in school history, but the first since the 1993-94 MCC/Horizon League season (also in 1988-89, 1989-90, 1990-91 in that league, with ’88-89 regular-season crown shared) … Notre Dame is the first school other than Connecticut to win both the BIG EAST regular season and tournament championships in the same season since 1992-93 (Miami-Fla.) … junior forward Natalie Achonwa is the first Fighting Irish player to sink a game-winning shot in the final seconds since Nov. 26, 2011, when another Natalie (Natalie Novosel) went coast-to-coast to bank in a foul-line jumper at the buzzer, giving Notre Dame a 56-54 win over No. 7/6 Duke in the championship game of the Junkanoo Jam at St. Georges High School in Freeport, Bahamas … the Fighting Irish have won seven of their last eight games against Connecticut, a run of success last pulled off against the Huskies by Villanova from 1981-89 (when the Wildcats won their first 14 games against UConn) … Notre Dame earns its first win in seven tries against Connecticut in the BIG EAST title game (six of those seven matchups have occurred in the state of Connecticut, the last three at the XL Center in Hartford) … in the past 11 series games between Notre Dame and Connecticut, nine have been decided by single digits (three going to overtime), and six times, the losing team had a chance to tie/win the game in the final seconds of regulation, but could not come up with the tying/winning shot … the Fighting Irish are 8-4 all-time against Connecticut when both teams are ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll (10-7 when they’re both in the top 10) … since the start of the 21st century, Notre Dame has more than twice as many wins over Connecticut (11) as any other team in the country (Rutgers is next with five) … starting with the 2011 NCAA Elite Eight win over Tennessee, Notre Dame is a combined 10-1 against Connecticut and Tennessee, with no other senior class at any school having compiled that many wins against those two traditional powers since 1988-89 when UConn made its first NCAA Championship appearance (the Rutgers Class of 2008, featuring Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson, is next with six) … the two-point margin was the closest in a BIG EAST final since 2001, when UConn’s Sue Bird hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to beat Notre Dame, 78-76, at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. … the Fighting Irish finish their BIG EAST era with a 24-17 (.585) record in the conference tournament … starting with that 2001 title-game loss to Connecticut, 18 of Notre Dame’s final 25 BIG EAST Championship contests were decided by 11 points or fewer, including 11 by single digits — the Fighting Irish also saw 23 of their 41 all-time tournament games decided by 11 points or fewer, going 11-12 (.478) in those close games … Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw has 11 career wins against Connecticut and head coach Geno Auriemma, the second-most coaching wins all-time against Auriemma’s clubs, trailing only longtime Villanova head coach Harry Perretta (14) … Notre Dame had not defeated Connecticut at the XL Center in eight meetings at the former Hartford Civic Center prior to last year’s regular-season finale, but has now won its last two games against the Huskies on its part-time home court … the Fighting Irish are now 13-13 all-time at the XL Center, including a 12-9 mark when playing there in the BIG EAST Championship … Notre Dame extends its school-record wining streak to 26 games … the Fighting Irish will enter the NCAA Championship with their best record ever (31-1), surpassing among others the 2000-01 squad (28-2) and last year’s team (30-3) … Notre Dame is 11-1 this season against ranked opponents (active nine-game winning streak), including a 5-1 record against top-10 teams … the Fighting Irish are 11-0 this season on short rest (one day or less between games) and 39-9 (.813) in such games during the past five seasons … junior guard Kayla McBride was named the BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player, the first Fighting Irish player to garner that award in any conference since 1992, when Margaret Nowlin took home the honors after leading Notre Dame to the MCC/Horizon League crown … in three games against Connecticut this season, McBride is averaging 23.3 points per game … senior guard/co-captain Skylar Diggins was named to the BIG EAST Championship All-Tournament Team for the third time in her career (also 2010 and 2011), becoming just the second Notre Dame player to earn three conference all-tournament honors in her career (Karen Robinson did so in the MCC/Horizon League from 1989-91) … freshman guard Jewell Loyd also earned a spot on the BIG EAST Championship All-Tournament Team, joining Diggins (2010) as the only Notre Dame rookies ever to make the squad … Notre Dame has received the BIG EAST’s automatic bid into the 2013 NCAA Championship and will learn its first-round tournament matchup when the full 64-team field is announced at 7 p.m. (ET) Monday (March 18) live on ESPN.