April 7, 2013
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Skylar Diggins has accomplished nearly everything she could have imagined in her career at Notre Dame. The only thing missing is a national championship.
To get another chance at that elusive title, Diggins will have to help the Fighting Irish beat BIG EAST rival Connecticut for an unprecedented fourth straight time this season.
“It would mean a lot,” Diggins said. “I say this over and over – not only to me but to our team and our program, the city of South Bend who have been supporting me my whole life. The opportunity is here now.”
These two teams have had the best rivalry in the sport over the past few years, and Sunday night’s meeting might be the final chapter with Notre Dame heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Two years ago, the Huskies had won the first three meetings before Notre Dame shocked them in the national semifinals. That started an unprecedented run in which the Irish have taken over the rivalry, winning seven of the last eight meetings.
This year the two schools played three thrilling games, with Notre Dame coming out on top by margins of one point, two points and in triple overtime.
“We came out of each game with ‘Wow, we didn’t play well,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “We can do a lot better. We learned a lot from each game since they were so close. We don’t have that feeling of we’ve beaten them so easily.”
Diggins agreed, saying the past few games aren’t a factor.
“I don’t think the past three games matter,” Diggins said. “They are a team that when you play against them, they can get in your head. When you think of UConn basketball, you think of all the championships.”
Still, no team has dominated Geno Auriemma’s Huskies this way since UConn won its first national championship in 1995. UConn has lost only 11 games since starting its record 90-game winning streak in 2008-09 – but seven came against Notre Dame.
Auriemma wasn’t concerned about the Irish’s recent run of success.
“If we would have won the other three and then lose tomorrow, then winning those other three would mean nothing,” he said. “I guess the short answer is: what happened in those other three doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters now is what happens tomorrow night. That’s it.”
The road to the title got a bit easier for UConn and Notre Dame when Louisville knocked off Brittney Griner and defending national champion Baylor. The Irish’s only loss this season came at home to the Lady Bears and UConn’s only loss outside of Notre Dame was against Baylor.
The winner will face Cal or Louisville in the championship game Tuesday night.
Cardinals coach Jeff Walz is familiar with both his potential opponents, having played against them in the BIG EAST the past few years.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Walz said. “If we’re fortunate enough to win the first game I hope it goes 10 overtimes. It’s been an unbelievable three-game series for those teams. Anything can happen. UConn’s playing real well right now; Breanna Stewart’s playing better.”
Stewart has really stepped up her play over the last month. She was the most heralded freshman coming into the season, but struggled through the middle part of the year. But ever since the BIG EAST tournament she’s really been on a roll.
The 6-foot-4 budding star had 16 points in the loss to the Irish for the conference title and was named the most outstanding player of the Bridgeport regional.
“I feel like I’m a player that’s being able to be relied on by my teammates,” Stewart said. “Right now, that’s what I want to be able to do. Throughout the season, there were times where I wasn’t able to completely say that my teammates were able to rely on me, and I think now I would say that they are.”
Stewart’s play may be key with UConn junior center Stefanie Dolson still bothered by a stress fracture in her right ankle and an injured left foot, as well. Dolson practiced all week.
Stewart isn’t the only freshman that has become more reliable.
Speedy point guard Moriah Jefferson has been a defensive stopper and a new offensive option for the Huskies in the NCAA tournament. The 5-foot-7 guard had 10 points in 26 minutes against Maryland and 10 in 27 minutes against Kentucky.
“They are playing better now,” McGraw said of the UConn freshmen. “Playing like everyone expected them to do at the beginning of the year.”