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Final Four Bound

Laura Myers | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

DAYTON, Ohio — They donned their new caps, pulled their new T-shirts over their green jerseys and danced the Irish jig with their fans.

Then, the Irish climbed a ladder and cut down the net, a physical reminder of their 73-59 victory over top-seeded Tennessee, a win that sends them to the program’s first Final Four since 2001.

Becca Bruszewski was the last player to cut a strand, and hers stuck as she tried to pull it off the hoop.

But just like Monday’s game, the senior forward wouldn’t let that piece of rope out of her grasp.

After injuring her knee Saturday against Oklahoma, Bruszewski was listed as questionable to start the game Monday.

Not only did she start, but she played 37 minutes and finished the game with 13 points and eight rebounds.

“Becca, she just won’t quit,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She is absolutely relentless. … She is the most mentally tough player I’ve ever seen.”

Bruszewski was named to the all-tournament team for the Dayton Regional. Junior guard Natalie Novosel made the team as well, and sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player.

Diggins probably earned a good number of votes for her performance Monday night as she scored 24 points and had four assists and four steals.

“Skylar was magnificent running the show today,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

After Tennessee forward Shekinna Stricklen opened the second half with four points to make the score 29-28, Diggins answered with five straight to re-open the lead. Layups from Bruszewski and Novosel along with another Diggins 3-pointer gave the Irish a nine-point lead with 15:31 to play.

Notre Dame would lead by as much as 15, and its lead never fell below four.

“We knew any time we made a run, they were going to make a run,” Diggins said. “We just had to make more.”

Tennessee point guard Meighan Simmons, the SEC freshman of the year, picked up her second foul just four minutes into the game, and spent most of the first half on the bench. Starting forward Glory Johnson also missed time after two early fouls.

Simmons, who leads her team in scoring with 13.8 per game, did not score until late in the second half, and finished the game with two points on 1-of-11 shooting.

“You could just tell this was a big game that seemed different for her,” Volunteers coach Pat Summitt said. “I thought she was overanxious.”

Notre Dame got out to an early 13-7 lead, but lost it amid a stretch of nearly seven minutes without scoring. The Volunteers went on a 7-0 run to take the lead at 14-13 before a Becca Bruszewski jumper re-started the Irish scoring.

From there, Bruszewski and Diggins powered Notre Dame to a 29-24 halftime lead.

Senior forward Devereaux Peters re-entered the game with four fouls with nearly six minutes to play. She lent four points to a 7-0 Irish run that put Notre Dame up 60-48 with 3:37 left, and committed her fifth foul with 1:27 to play.

“She played like a senior,” McGraw said. “We got a lot out of her in those four minutes.”

Peters had seven points and five rebounds in just 17 minutes. Novosel finished the game with 17 points, five assists and four rebounds, and senior guard Brittany Mallory had 10 points.

“Every one of our starters is the MVP,” McGraw said.

The win is the first over Tennessee in Notre Dame program history. The Irish were 0-20 against the Volunteers coming into Monday’s game.

Notre Dame advances to the Final Four for the first time since its championship season in 2001. It will play the winner of Tuesday’s game between No. 1-seed Connecticut and No. 2-seed Duke on Sunday in Indianapolis.