Notre Dame celebrates after Natalie Achonwa sinks the game winning basket off the steal and assist from Skylar Diggins. (Photo by Mark A. Hodgkin)
Notre Dame celebrates after Natalie Achonwa sinks the game winning basket off the steal and assist from Skylar Diggins. (Photo by Mark A. Hodgkin)

Last Big East Tournament a rare example of perfect seeding – right to the end

March 13, 2013 - 2:07am
No. 2 Notre Dame 61, No. 3 Connecticut 59

In the first four days of the final real Big East Tournament, every game was won by the higher seed.

On Day One, the league's bottom feeders duked it out amongst themselves for the right to play cat's paws to the Big East's middle tier on Day Two. All of Day Two’s highlights took place in the Villanova-Georgetown game, where Nova, which averaged just 59.5 points per game all season, scored 89 points by knocking down 17 of 31 (54%) three-point attempts to beat Georgetown by 31 points, 89-58. Georgetown’s Sugar Rodgers scored 42 of the Hoyas’ 58 points, shooting 50 percent both overall (15-30) and from the 3-point line (6-12) in what was likely her last collegiate game unless the Hoyas make the WNIT with a 15-16 record.

Day Three's quarterfinals saw USF pressure Notre Dame, losing by just nine points in a low-scoring (75-66) but hard-fought game, while Connecticut trounced DePaul by 33 (94-61). The performance of the day came from Syracuse senior center Kayla Alexander, whose 34 points (more than half the Orange's total tally) sent Villanova packing. On this day, the Wildcats shot just 9-23 from beyond the arc, losing by five (56-61).

That set up Monday's semifinals, where the top seeds won comfortably, with UConn prevailing over Syracuse, 64-51, and Notre Dame handily outpacing Louisville, 83-59. to meet yet again.

It all seemed almost bothersome preamble to the much anticipated final game, which everyone knew would be UConn-Notre Dame, part III.

Although Notre Dame had won five of the last six games over the Huskies coming into this final, that one UConn win was last season’s Big East Tournament title, which Connecticut has won 18 times. Notre Dame had lost six times in the final to the Huskies. Entering Tuesday night's final, UConn was 10-0 over the Irish in the Big East Tournament, and though they have taken the Big East's regular-season crown the past two years, the Huskies' dominance of the annual tourney had left the Irish, who will leave the leage to join the Atlantic Coast Conference this summer, with no Big East tournament titles on their resume.

History means nothing, however, in the Skylar Diggins era at Notre Dame. And on Tuesday, the Irish endgame once again defeated UConn, 61-59. The formula for Connecticut’s loss was familiar: With 18 seconds left in a tied game UConn’s stars (Kelly Faris, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Bria Hartley) could not close it out. Faris got into the lane, but bounced her shot off the bottom of the rim. The ball went out of bounds to UConn. On the ensuing play, they could not get the ball to Stefanie Dolson (who had been solid throughout) and eventually Mosqueda-Lewis turned the ball over with an ill-advised pass to the sideline in Hartley’s direction. Diggins, of course, got the steal, dribbled down court and found Achonwa unguarded under the basket for the game-winning lay-in with just 1.1 seconds remaining.

Kayla McBride once again proved the UConn-killer. At nearly every key point in the game, McBride would hit a jumper to extend the lead. Although she shot just 11-25, her 23 points led all scorers. The Irish guards carried the load for Notre Dame, with McBride (23), Diggins (12) and freshman Jewell Loyd (16) scoring all but 10 of the Irish points. For UConn, the bigs led the way: Dolson had 18 points on 8-14 shooting, and Stewart came on strong in the second half, scoring 16 (7-14). Mosqueda-Lewis, who was doubled and harassed all game, made just three shots. The Irish defense was so effective on the perimeter that Connecticut, averaging 8.8 made threes each game, hit none and shot just five, 18 below their season average. It was the first time since the 2002 National Championship game that UConn had not made a three.

Both defenses were swarming, organized and intense. The second half was a struggle for both teams to score. Indeed, Notre Dame was held scoreless for six full minutes as the Huskies clawed back from a nine-point halftime deficit to tie the score at 39 with 12:42 left in the game. From that point to the end, the lead (the largest of which was Notre Dame by four) changed eight times and was tied seven times.

The game demonstrated both the bitter and the better of playing the same team three times, and 14 times in three years. Both teams know every play the other is creating. Both know the other’s tendencies. The game tends to be, like this one, a defensive battle, with individual rather than team play the difference-maker. And so it was in this last true Big East final.

Geno Auriemma has always said that the postseason is a guard’s game, and yet another close loss to the Irish supports his theory. From the time the Huskies clawed their way out of the hole to tie things up at 39 on a pair of Stewart free throws with 12-and-a-half minutes to play, Notre Dame’s guards scored all but six of the 22 Irish points, while UConn’s interior players scored all but four of the Huskies' 20. UConn's Bria Hartley, a two-guard playing the point, is a shell of the player she was a year ago, when she earned All-American status. She was tentative throughout, passing up her shot regularly, ignoring the 14-foot pull-up that she rarely misses, and turning the ball over six times. Indeed, UConn's 50 turnovers in the last two games against Notre Dame is a warning that another trip to the Final Four is hardly guaranteed for the Huskies. UConn has the second best center in the country, but the Husky guards need a shot of confidence in the next two weeks. Teams like Kentucky, which well could be a three-seed in the Bridgeport Regional, could easily turn UConn over into a loss.

That same theory of guard-driven postseason victory, of course, looks good for Notre Dame, whose top three guards are unrivaled in the nation. The road to the Final Four looks much more certain for the Irish. But waiting there will likely be Stanford, with lots of bigs, and Baylor with Brittney Griner. Notre Dame’s only premier post player, Natalie Achonwa, has been foul-plagued in the last two UConn games. She played just 14 minutes Monday night, contributing little, other than finding an open spot on the winning play. Notre Dame’s downfall, if it comes, will be in the paint.

Nevertheless, these “flaws” in the UConn and Notre Dame games are revealed only against elite teams. The Irish have beaten UConn three times, losing only to Baylor. Stanford has beaten Baylor, though there's an asterisk beside that "W" due to the injury of Odyssey Sims; the Cardinal have lost only to UConn and Cal, another top-10 power. UConn beat Stanford handily, and has lost only to Baylor and Notre Dame.

Both the Huskies and the Irish have dominated just about every other team they have played. Both are still one seeds in the NCAAs. Despite the vulnerabilities of each team, both will probably reach the Final Four. But those looking for one final, Big East donnybrook, can only hope that the bracketeers don’t let them meet before the final game.