HARTFORD, Conn. – Notre Dame had Skylar Diggins and Connecticut did not.
That’s a phrase that used to go the other way from the Hall of Fame UConn coach Geno Auriemma when Diana Taurasi was piling up trophies for him early in the last decade.
But these days it is Diggins, the Irish hometown star from South Bend, Ind., who has become a game-breaker giving grief to Notre Dame’s opponents.
With the score tied at 59, the Irish senior, likely to be taken second or third in next month’s WNBA draft, picked off a pass from the Huskies’ Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with six seconds left in regulation in Tuesday night’s Big East championship showdown.
Diggins then bolted down the court, shook off UConn defenders trying to foul, and four seconds later found Natalie Achonwa under the basket for a layup and a 61-59 victory that broke UConn’s Big East six-game hex over the Irish in the conference title game.
The Huskies may have owned the Big East Tournament until Tuesday night, but in recent times Notre Dame (31-1), ranked second in the current Associated Press women’s poll, has mastered third-ranked UConn (29-4) in every other way.
The win was the seventh out of their last eight attempts over the Huskies, including two straight NCAA national semifinals, and it also completed a three-game sweep over UConn this season. All three of this year's triumphs have come in the final moments, including last week’s win in triple-overtime epic back home in South Bend, Ind.
The previous one was up the road in January at Gampel Pavilion on UConn’s campus in Storrs.
The Notre Dame sweep left Auriemma’s Huskies for the first time in 20 years failing to win either a Big East regular-season or tournament title. The loss also came on the 10th anniversary of another rare UConn signature loss in the conference championship when Villanova pulled off the upset that ended UConn’s then-NCAA record 70-game win streak.
Making the loss all the more bitter for the Huskies, this time UConn will not have the chance to avenge themselves, at least not in Big East play as the once-dominant league unravels in a rash of conference realignments.
“I think it’s special because it’s the last one; it’s nice to leave here as champions,” Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said. “To go undefeated for the whole season (in conference) was a great accomplishment for this team and to achieve it like we did and win it here make it even better. Now we’re 0-0 and we have to focus on the NCAA tournament.”
Having been at the top all year long, it’s conceivable that Connecticut and Notre Dame could meet again in the Women’s Final Four early next month in New Orleans.
It was even suggested to Auriemma that maybe what happened in 2001 might be reversed.
That year was the last time the Big East tourney was decided by two points -- that time, in the Huskies' favor. The tournament win allowed Connecticut offset the Huskies' 72-96 regular-season loss to the Irish in the only regular-season meeting between the two heavyweights, but the Huskies went on to lose in the NCAA semifinals to the Irish. Notre Dame advanced to the national championship game where they topped Purdue for their only national crown.
“History has shown that what happens during the regular season, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s going to happen in the postseason,” Auriemma said. “There is a lot of basketball to be played before there is a chance of a Connecticut/Notre Dame game.”
Notre Dame celebrates their first Big East Championship after the steal by Skylar Diggins and assist to Natalie Achonwa to win the game in the final seconds. (Photo by Mark A. Hodgkin)
Notre Dame’s only loss to date has been to top-ranked Baylor (61-73), the defending NCAA champion led by Brittney Griner, who is considered the overall top prospect in the WNBA draft. The Huskies also lost to the Bears (70-76) here in Hartford in mid-February, in UConn's only loss aside from its three narrow setbacks by the Irish.
The thrilling ending was also befitting of the last moments of the Big East women’s championship as it is presently known in name and structure.
Earlier in the day, before Notre Dame left the Huskies in its wake, the Irish also left in the dust what is the current remainder of the entire Big East, announcing a deal had been cut to allow them to depart this summer for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
That announcement came days behind the deal that will allow seven members, all Catholic institutions, to go their own way in a new configuration next season but one that will still carry the Big East name.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh also played their final tournament action this past weekend before heading for the Atlantic Coast Conference, following the exit of West Virginia last season for the Big 12.
The remaining Big East teams who also play football will form a newly-named league with some additions for next season, but the attrition will not end even then. After one season, Rutgers will become part of the Big Ten and Louisville will leave for the ACC.
On Tuesday night, however, the spotlight was still on top-tier women's basketball before the shuffling begins, and after a mixed first half, especially by Connecticut, the play was worth the time spent for those watching on ESPN, as well as here in the arena.
Notre Dame built a 13-point lead in the first half, led by Kayla McBride, the Big East tournament’s most outstanding player and a player who has been a thorn in the side of the Huskies. McBride put up 23 points in this outing, 13 of them in the opening half.
Auriemma observed, “Kayla McBride made big shot after big shot and not easy ones, either. They deserved to win because they made one more play at the end. One more play than we did.”
Connecticut bounced back in the second half, when Notre Dame's Achonwa, who had been plagued by fouls all evening, was consigned to the bench shortly after the intermission. The Huskies went to a big lineup as junior Stefanie Dolson and freshman Breanna Stewart got some help on the inside.
Connecticut then launched a 12-0 run to take the lead and erase a 10-0 deficit.
From there, it was toe-to-toe the rest of the way with Notre Dame several times seeming ready to lock things up before the Huskies would fight back.
“I thought the bench did a great job of keeping us in it and getting the lead,” McGraw said. “Then when Natalie got her third foul, I thought we were in trouble rebounding.
“They had the big team in at that point and I felt Stewart played really well. She had a great game, maybe the best I’ve seen her play this year and Stefanie Dolson did, too.
Dolson had 18 points and 14 rebounds for Connecticut, while Stewart scored 16. Bria Hartley scored nine in the backcourt while Mosqueda-Lewis had eight points and nine rebounds.
But while UConn had its way on the inside, Notre Dame took away the Huskies' perimeter game.
“I thought our 3-point defense was fantastic,” McGraw observed.
UConn, which has shot a slew of them on nights, was 0-for-5 from long distance, marking the first time since the 2002 NCAA title game won by the Huskies over Oklahoma that they did not connect on a shot from beyond the arc.
Freshman Jewell Lloyd had 16 points for the Irish, while Diggins scored 13, dealt six assists and grabbed five steals, including the one that set up the game winner.
“I think this is our coming of age,” Diggins said.”We fought through adversity and this was a great win for our program and for Coach McGraw.”
Both Diggins and Auriemma talked about the abortive foul attempt by the Huskies on the last play.
“I think (UConn) thought the foul was coming and I’m glad they let it go,” Diggins said. “I had the right presence to start out and it gave me options. She called my name at the end and I looked up and saw Natalie and she finished.”
Auriemma, who said his team had a foul to give, explained, “I think we fouled her three times, we just tried to not make it look intentional. As it turned out, we would have had to tackle her for them to call it, but we tried.
“We knew we had a foul to give and we saved it at the end, and like so many of these games, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Diggins and Lloyd made the all-tournament team with Stewart and Dolson and Syracuse’s Kayla Alexander.
Look for the Big East to go out in a blaze of glory Monday night when ESPN presents the 64-team field and tournament draw.
Notre Dame and Connecticut will be two of the four No. 1 seeds, along with Baylor and, in all likelihood, Stanford. The only mystery will be whether the Selection Committee leaves the Huskies and Irish seeded as they are currently ranked -- i.e., the second and third one-seeds, which would set up a potential fourth meeting of the season between the two in the national semifinals for the third year in a row. Or will the Committee decide to shake things up, arranging the seedings so as to allow for a final collision in the national championship game, should both teams get themselves all the way to New Orleans and one of them sneaks past Baylor.
Syracuse and Louisville are locks and should be anywhere from 4-6 seeds. Villanova and DePaul are also likely to be in the field along with St. John’s, which will be one of the 16 first-round hosts, as will UConn. South Florida remainins on the bubble, and if Fordham forces its way in from the Atlantic 10 or Delaware doesn’t win the CAA, then South Florida may be also at the dance.
Rutgers, however, will probably miss for the first time in 11 seasons, though the Scarlet Knights could land in the WNIT with Georgetown and Marquette.
Big East All-Tournament Team
Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame
Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame
Stefanie Dolson, Connecticut
Breanna Stewart, Connecticut
Kayla Alexander, Syracuse
Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player
Kayla McBride, Notre Dame
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