Feb. 27, 2012
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – There are few things missing from Muffet McGraw’s impressive resume as coach of Notre Dame.
Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel filled one of the holes by guiding the third-ranked Fighting Irish to their first outright BIG EAST championship with a 72-59 victory over No. 4 Connecticut on Monday night.
“This team is really special,” McGraw said. “They have really high goals and a lot of pride. I’m happy for them and appreciate they are happy for me to win the first one. I love this group.”
Novosel scored 21 points, and Diggins added 20 for the Irish (28-2, 15-1 BIG EAST), who will try and win their first BIG EAST conference tournament when they begin play on Sunday.
“It’s great,” said Diggins, who was proudly wearing a BIG EAST championship T-shirt in the postgame news conference. “You know we come out here and play for coach. She deserves it. It’s something we wanted to do for her.”
The Fighting Irish shared the regular-season championship with UConn in 2001 before going on to win the national title that season. Winning one outright was on their minds from the beginning of the season.
“It’s definitely on our list of things we wanted to do,” Novosel said. “We wanted to do it for coach since she hadn’t gotten one.”
Notre Dame had won just one of its previous 14 previous games in Connecticut, including going 0-7 at the XL Center.
Diggins led the way to this victory.
With the game tied at 51, Notre Dame went on an 11-2 run with Diggins scoring the first eight points. She hit two layups on the fast break then connected on a deep 3-pointer. Dolson’s layup broke up the junior guard’s spurt. A free throw by Diggins and a 3-pointer by Brittany Mallory made it 62-53 with 9:16 left.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was scoreless in the first half, had five quick points to get UConn within four. That’s as close as the Huskies could get. Devereaux Peters followed up a free throw with a block on the other end that led to an easy lay-in by Diggins. Mallory hit another 3-pointer with just under five minutes left that made it 69-59.
A 3-pointer with 3:11 left by Novosel made it a 13-point game and capped the scoring for the night, handing UConn its first double-digit home loss since Dec. 5, 2005, against North Carolina.
The defeat left UConn in an unfamiliar position, searching for answers going into the postseason.
“Our team has no fight,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’re the kind of fighters that throw punches and if you keep backing up, we’ll keep punching you. But if you punch us back, we’re going to run and hide.”
The Irish swept the season series from the Huskies and have won three straight overall against UConn, including last season’s victory in the national semifinals. North Carolina was the last team to win three in a row from UConn, doing so from 2004-07.
The Huskies showed a bit of grit in the first meeting between the teams this season, an overtime loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 9. The rematch turned out to be a lot less competitive in the end and that concerned the Hall of Fame coach.
“This team has not improved since the last time we played Notre Dame,” Auriemma said. “I would have thought we would have made great strides and we have not. It’s one of the few years that I can remember that has been the case.”
The Huskies fell to the third seed in the conference tournament, losing the tiebreaker to St. John’s, which ended UConn’s 99-game home winning streak on Feb. 18.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points and Stefanie Dolson added 18 for UConn (26-4, 13-3), which has now lost consecutive games at home for the first time in 19 years.
“They put great pressure on us, and we backed up and didn’t fight back,” Dolson said. “We didn’t play Connecticut basketball at all. When things weren’t going right we took it one-on-one to the basket. It can’t be like that. When things like that happen, we have to fight back as a team.”
This was the first time in six seasons that UConn didn’t win or share the BIG EAST regular-season title. The Huskies have won either the BIG EAST regular-season or tournament championship the last 17 years.
— ND —
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame claims its first outright BIG EAST Conference regular season championship since joining the league in 1995-96 … it’s the first outright regular season title in any conference for the Fighting Irish since 1995, when they won the last of their five Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now Horizon League) crowns … Notre Dame finishes with a 15-1 BIG EAST record, matching its second-most wins in league play during its 17-year membership (the 1996-97 club went 17-1 when the BIG EAST played an 18-game divisional schedule, while four other teams had won 15 BIG EAST games, most recently a 15-1 record in 2000-01) … the Fighting Irish ends up with just one BIG EAST loss in a season for the fourth time, duplicating its totals from 1996-97 (17-1), 1999-2000 (15-1) and 2000-01 (15-1) … this marks the first time in Notre Dame’s BIG EAST tenure that it has gone undefeated on the road during conference play — the last time the Fighting Irish did that in any conference was 1993-94, when it went 10-2 in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, with both losses coming at home vs. Butler (65-62 on Jan. 22) and La Salle (85-75 on Feb. 17) … Notre Dame did not trail at halftime in any of its 16 BIG EAST games this season, leading in 15 of those contests and ending up tied 31-31 at the break in the first matchup with Connecticut on Jan. 7 at Purcell Pavilion … the Fighting Irish also did not trail by more than eight points at any time during its 16-game conference season, with its largest deficit coming on two occasions (both in that Jan. 7 game against Connecticut, the last at 53-45 with 9:19 remaining in the second half) … Notre Dame sets a school record with its 10th win over a ranked opponent this season (the 2000-01 club had nine), and improves to 10-1 against Top 25 teams, including a 6-1 record away from home (5-1 road, 1-0 neutral) … the Fighting Irish also now are 5-1 this season against top-10 opponents, having won their last five such games following a loss at top-ranked Baylor on Nov. 20 … Notre Dame’s five regular-season top-10 wins are a school record, one more than the totals collected in 2000-01 and 2004-05 (the ’00-01 squad holds the overall season record with seven top-10 victories, the last three coming in the final three rounds of the 2001 NCAA Championship) … the Fighting Irish earn their third consecutive victory over Connecticut, and sweep a regular-season series from the Huskies for the first time since joining the BIG EAST in 1995-96 (Rutgers was the last conference team to win twice against Connecticut in the same season, doing so in 2005-06) … Notre Dame is the first BIG EAST opponent to collect three consecutive series wins against Connecticut since Miami (Fla.) won five in a row against the Huskies from 1992-93 … the Fighting Irish are the first opponent of any kind to win three in a row against Connecticut since Tennessee had a similar three-game run from 2005-07 (North Carolina also won their third in a row from UConn in 2007, a streak that started in 2004) … Notre Dame earns its first win over Connecticut in eight career matchups at the XL Center (previously known as the Hartford Civic Center) — four of the previous seven games between the teams at that arena had come during the BIG EAST Championship … the Fighting Irish defeat Connecticut in its home state for only the second time in 19 series matchups, with the other victory a 65-59 verdict on Jan. 30, 2005, at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. … Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw leads her team to its seventh victory over Connecticut counterpart Geno Auriemma, becoming the sixth coach in history (and fourth active skipper) to accomplish that feat — the others are Villanova’s Harry Perretta (11), former Providence coach Bob Foley (10), Tennessee’s Pat Summitt (9), Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer (8) and former St. John’s coach Joe Mullaney, Jr. (7) … since the start of the new century (2000-01), Notre Dame has more wins over Connecticut (7) than any other program in the country — Rutgers (5), Tennessee (4), North Carolina (3) and Stanford (3) are the only teams with three victories against the Huskies in the past 12 seasons … for the third time in the past 17 series games (and the fourth time in series history), Notre Dame holds Connecticut below 60 points — the others came on Jan. 13, 2004 (a 66-51 Fighting Irish win at Purcell Pavilion), the aforementioned Jan. 30, 2005, Fighting Irish win in Storrs, and March 8, 2010 (a 59-44 Connecticut win in the BIG EAST Championship semifinals at the XL Center in Hartford) … fifth-year senior forward/tri-captain Devereaux Peters ties a school record with her seventh 15-rebound game of the season, matching the mark set by Jane Politiski in 1977-78 (Notre Dame’s first varsity season when it played as an independent at the AIAW Division III level) … Peters becomes the second player in school history to record 200 career blocked shots (now with 201), joining Ruth Riley in that elite club (Riley had 370 blocks from 1997-2001) … Peters moves into the top five on Notre Dame’s all-time rebounding list with 860 caroms, passing Mary Beth Schueth (853 from 1981-85) … Peters rises to 20th place on the Fighting Irish career scoring list with 1,227 points, passing Letitia Bowen (1,219 from 1991-95) … junior guard Skylar Diggins posts the 30th 20-point game of her career, taking over sole possession of fifth place in school history, one more than Trena Keys (1982-86) and Charel Allen (2004-08) … senior guard/tri-captain Natalie Novosel jumps two spots on the Notre Dame all-time scoring list, now standing 13th in Fighting Irish history with 1,432 points, passing both Lindsay Schrader (1,429 from 2005-10) and current Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey (1,430 from 1996-2001) … Novosel also ties her career high with eight rebounds, a mark she had set four times previously (most recently on Feb. 5, 2011, at USF) … the Fighting Irish senior class of 2012 (Peters, Novosel, fifth-year guard/tri-captain Brittany Mallory and guard Fraderica Miller) has led Notre Dame to 110 wins in the past four seasons, the most by any senior class in the program’s 35-year history, one more than the 2000-01 senior class (Imani Dunbar, Niele Ivey, Meaghan Leahy, Ruth Riley and Kelley Siemon) … Notre Dame will open BIG EAST Championship play at 2 p.m. (ET) Sunday with a quarterfinal game against the winner of the second round tournament game between No. 8 seed DePaul and the winner of the No. 9 USF/No. 16 Pittsburgh first round game.