SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame and Connecticut have developed a Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier rivalry in women’s college basketball -- and the two basketball powers staged yet another epic showdown Monday night at Purcell Pavilion.
In a game that featured 15 ties and 14 lead changes, No. 2 Notre Dame found a way to knock off No. 3 Connecticut 96-87 in three overtimes in front of a sellout crowd of 9,149.
The Irish (28-1, 16-0 Big East) trailed 42-34 with 16:06 to play in regulation were able to close the gap and force overtime and then found a way to pick up their second win of the season over the Huskies (27-3, 14-2 Big East) and extend their winning streak to 23 games, tying the record set by the 2000-01 national championship team.
It is Notre Dame’s sixth win over UCONN in the last seven meetings.
“Absolutely thrilled with the resilience of this group – to refuse to lose,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “This was just a war. Just what we expected. But to gut it out for 55 minutes, it was unbelievable.”
It was an incredibly difficult loss for coach Geno Auriemma’s squad, who more than had a chance to ruin Notre Dame’s regular season finale and clinch a No. 1 seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament.
Consider the following points . . .
• Despite losing starters Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley to fouls, the Huskies led 70-64 with 2:48 to play in the first overtime, but finished the first overtime 1-of-5 from the free-throw line to keep the Irish in the game.
• UConn led 80-75 with 2:23 to play in the second overtime, but managed just one free throw in the final 2:23.
• A Kelly Faris jumper with 4:14 to play in the third overtime gave the Huskies their final lead at 83-82, but they were outscored 14-4 the rest of the way.
• In the three overtimes, Notre Dame was 17-of-20 from the free-throw line while UCONN was 7-of-13.
“I don’t think the effort was questionable,” Auriemma said. “As I said to our team, we talked about it, it usually comes down to when two really good teams are playing, there are little things that you need to do at the right time. We certainly put ourselves in a position to win in regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime. But we couldn’t finish it off. It’s like every opportunity we had to put it away slipped away from us.”
Notre Dame’s pressure defense from its guards forced UConn into a record 35 turnovers.
“That was the first thing that coach said when he came into the locker room,” Faris said. “And he told us the guards are going to be pressured and we’re going to be challenged and it starts with the top down. The seniors, we didn’t handle the pressure well and we can’t expect any of the younger girls to do that if we can’t even do that.”
Senior Skylar Diggins played all 55 minutes and finished with 29 points and 11 rebounds while Kayla McBride had 26 points before fouling out in the second overtime. Natalie Achonwa added 17.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led the Huskies with 26 points and Faris added 21. Dolson added 12 points, Morgan Tuck 11 and Hartley 10.
Neither team shot the ball well in the first half. But Mosqueda-Lewis had the hot hand for Connecticut as her 13 first half points helped the Huskies stake a 34-28 lead at halftime.
‘She was 3-of-4 in the first half (from beyond the arc) and it seemed like we couldn’t find her,” McGraw said. “She was wide open on all four of her threes in the first half. We made her work a little bit harder in the second half. I thought we did a much better job of guarding her in the second half.”
UConn appeared set to take control in the second half after a Hartley layup with 16:06 left in the regulation gave the Huskies a 42-34 lead. The Irish responded with a 10-2 run to tie the game at 44 on a McBride layup.
Neither team led by more than three points over the final 8:24 of regulation. The Irish had a chance to win it in regulation, but Kayla McBride missed a jumper as time expired.
It looked as if the Huskies were heading to victory in the first overtime. After Morgan Tuck’s free throw made it 71-68, Auriemma called timeout with UConn’s defense focused on taking the ball out of Diggins hands.
Instead, it went to McBride, whose three-point shot hit the front of the rim and rolled in to tie the game.
It was Notre Dame’s only made three-pointer of the night.
“I missed my first three, so I was a little nervous,” she said. “But I saw they were double-teaming Skylar. I had taken the ball out of bounds and it was basically a one-on-one situation. I saw an opening and I took it.”
Trailing 80-75 late in the second overtime, the Irish scored six of the final seven points of the period, capped by Kaila Turner’s jumper with :46 left to tie the game at 81.
In the third overtime, Notre Dame pulled away. Jewell Loyd’s jumper with 2:50 left gave Notre Dame the lead for good and the Irish slowly pulled away to wrap up the regular season league title.
It's one more knock out punch delivered by the Fighting Irish. With possible re-match events in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.