SOUTH BEND, Ind. – As he sat in front of the assembled media, UConn coach Geno Auriemma just shook his head.
The frustration was evident over the longtime Huskies skipper as he watched his team let yet another close game against Notre Dame slip away.
Monday night’s 96-87 loss to the Irish was yet another chapter in a series of recent losses that have changed a once dominant series into a rivalry that has become Must See TV for women’s college basketball fans.
“How many chances can we have?,” Auriemma said. “To be on the road against a really good team, you might be able to get one chance and you might get two chances. But you are not going to get unlimited chances.”
What frustrated Auriemma the most was his team had numerous opportunities to win the game despite Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley fouling out.
“Without Stefanie in the middle there not handling the ball for us, we’re not as good as we need to be,” he said. “I think not having Bria out there is one thing. But we need to take care of the ball better and we didn’t do it.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the evening for Auriemma was the final sequence in the first overtime. Up three, the Huskies called timeout with a specific plan – don’t let Skylar Diggins shoot a three-pointer to tie the game.
UConn double-teamed the All-American and Diggins found Kayla McBride open for the game-tying three-pointer. During the timeout, Auriemma considered fouling to prevent a potential three-pointer.
“I thought about it. I didn’t do it,” he said. “And maybe I should have. I never thought McBride would walk up to the three-point line and we would just watch her shoot it. It’s been that kind of year. I have seen things that I have never seen before.”
Prior to McBride’s shot, the Irish were 0-of-10 from three-point range.
“Their guards, when they had to make some really big shots they made them,” Auriemma said. “We wanted to make sure Skylar didn’t have the ball and she didn’t. We were comfortable with anyone else taking it because they didn’t shoot the ball well from the three-point line and the team they had out there wasn’t a great three-point shooting team. And that is what is so frustrating. Only two guys are going to shoot the ball at the end of the game.”
Auriemma lamented his team’s poor free throw shooting in the overtime, specifically a 1-of-5 showing in the first overtime when the game was there for UCONN’s taking.
“We had a chance to win the game at the free throw line,” he said. “And we didn’t do it.”
Before the 2011 Final Four, the Huskies were 28-4 all-time against the Irish. Since then, Notre Dame is 6-1.
“I think everybody in the country has been trying to figure out how to beat UCONN for a long time,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “After we won (the national title) in 2001, we weren’t a Top 10 team. They were. They have always been the higher seed until recently. Our recruiting is better and our team is better. I feel like we’re going to find a way to win. We’ve got it rolling right now. And whatever it takes, we’re going to find a way to win.”
No one found a way to win more than Skylar Diggins. Playing her final game in front of the hometown fans, the South Bend native had four fouls at the end of the second overtime along with Ariel Braker and Kaila Turner. Neither one fouled out.
“I felt like I was protecting my house or something – like I was a guard dog,” Diggins said on her final game at home.
McGraw was especially pleased with Turner’s performance off the bench.
“For her to come out and play aggressively and not give the ball to someone else I thought was a huge step for her,” she said. “I think she did it in the Syracuse game and she is starting to feel like that she is a senior and this is her time.”
For Notre Dame, its next step is to see if it can win its first-ever Big East Tournament championship. But Monday night, McGraw was savoring back-to-back Big East regular season titles.
“This is the best conference in the country,” she said. “You don’t have to put up any numbers to know that we have been to two Final Fours in a row and it is a battle. And every team is capable of beating you and it is a really remarkable accomplishment and I think we have overachieved to get to this point.”
For the Huskies, it is back to the drawing board to find a way to get over the hump against Notre Dame.
“I don’t know how many times you can lose to the same team and keep getting the same result and think that something different is going tot happen,” Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “So whatever it is, something’s got to change within our team. It’s got to start with individuals and working on yourself. Finding whether or not you want to change and bring it to the team so we can collectively be better.”