DENVER – In one of the all-time semifinal thrillers at the Women’s Final Four, Notre Dame rallied twice Sunday night with the game on the line to oust its Big East rival national heavyweight Connecticut 83-75 in overtime for the second straight year and move on to Tuesday night’s NCAA championship.
The Irish (35-3) will again be meeting a representative from the Big 12, but this time the opposing foe will be unbeaten Baylor (39-0), which put away Stanford 59-47 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,028 at the Pepsi Center.
It was the first overtime in the semifinals since 1997 when Old Dominion upset Stanford 83-82 and first overtime in the Women’s Final Four since Maryland topped Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke in 2006 in Boston.
Notre Dame beat the Huskies (33-5) twice during the regular season, including an overtime game at home in South Bend, Ind., but UConn had come back to stop its three-game losing streak to the Irish by beating them in the Big East tournament title.
This was Connecticut’s fifth straight Women’s Final Four as it was for Stanford (34-2), which has now matched a futile 0-5 consecutive run by LSU. The Huskies have also had a previous five straight finals streak to be associated with the NCAA record of consecutive finals appearances.
Notre Dame is also 3-0 in national semifinals matchups with UConn, having topped the Huskies in the 2001 Women’s Final Four on the way to the Irish’s only NCAA crown in three previous attempts, including last year’s title game loss to Texas A&M.
“It’s nice to be able to be a team that can actually beat them here,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw of UConn’s 13 Final Four appearances.
All-American Skylar Diggins and fifth-year senior Brittany Mallory combined in the extra period to ruin the chance for the Huskies to continue their quest for an eighth national title, which would tie the record held by legendary Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Lady Vols.
Summitt, who revealed in August she has early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, was here Sunday night to be part of a tribute to the all-time U.S. Olympic coaches and received a standing ovation when she was the last one to be introduced during halftime of the second game.
After Connecticut took a quick 70-67 lead in overtime on a 3-pointer from sophomore Bria Hartley, Diggins, who had 19 points, including 13 after halftime, tied it with a trey of her own and then Mallory hit the first of her two treys.
Stefanie Dolson, who led UConn with 20 points and nine rebounds, but missed seven critical minutes in the second half of regulation due to foul trouble, got UConn within one on a layup with 2:01 left.
Diggins then committed a turnover but she recovered from her turnover and blocked a layup attempt by Hartley. Grabbing the ball, Diggins went the other way feeding Mallory, who nailed her second trey for a Notre Dame 76-72 lead with 1:30 left in the overtime.
“That was game-saving, that was huge,” McGraw said of Diggins’ stop and Mallory’s score. “That would have turned the game around had they made a layup.
“And as (Devreaux Peters) said, “A lot of times you turn the ball over, you tend to put your head down and kind of jog back and hope somebody gets there. But she sprinted the floor and made that huge play.”
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who will now turn his attention to guide the U.S. Olympic team’s effort to land another gold medal this summer at the games in London, England, said, “As most games do, it turned on the one great play by a great player.
“And then when we got into the overtime, we just didn’t have enough. They just made some huge shots. We took a chance on making it difficult,” Auriemma said. “But Brittany Mallory made two huge shots, and that’s who we wanted to shoot the ball. And, God bless her, she stepped up and made shots.”
Connecticut seemed doom in regulation, trailing 58-51 with 8:28 left when the Huskies mounted their own rally and went ahead 67-65 when Kelly Faris hed two free throws with 11 seconds left.
But Notre Dame had one more life and after Diggins missed a layup, Natalie Novosel grabbed the offensive rebound and tied it with three seconds left to force the extra period.
“We had the game won with 1:13 left and we simply gave it back to them,” McGraw said. “Then we had to make some spectacular plays to claw our way out, Brittany hitting the three and Natalie hitting the shot at the end of regulation. Sky had some game-saving defensive plays and made the 3 down the stretch. We really earned that one.”
Novosel had 20 points for Notre Dame, while Peters had 17 points and 11 rebounds to go with 11 points from Mallory in addition to the 19 from Diggins.
Connecticut, which dominated 52-34 inside the paint, got 18 points from Hartley, in addition to 10 each from senior Tiffany Hayes and Faris besides the 20 from Dolson.
Statistically, the big differential in the Irish’s favor was their 20-27 success of the foul line, including 8-for-11 from Novosel, while UConn was just 10-for-13.
This will be Notre Dame’s second meeting this season with Baylor, which won the Preseason Women’s NIT at home in Waco, Texas, with a 94-81 triumph over the Irish in the title game.
The Bears will be looking to win their second NCAA title and first since 2005, when they topped Michigan State.