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ND Women’s Basketball: Sky high

Andrew Owens | Monday, April 4, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS — When sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins sank consecutive free throws with 28 seconds left to give the Irish a nine-point lead, fantasy became reality and hope became result in a 72-63 Notre Dame victory over Connecticut in the national semifinals.

The team’s emotional leader scored a career-high 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting and turned the second half into a complete team comeback in one of the greatest victories in program history.

“I thought Skylar was just amazing, simply amazing today,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

Notre Dame (31-7) used a 55.6 percent shooting effort in the second half to overcome an eight-point deficit with under 18 minutes to go. The Irish were the first team since 2004 to shoot over 50 percent from the field against the Huskies (36-2).

Several times Connecticut made one of its typical runs but, unlike most opponents over the past three seasons, the Irish answered with a counterpunch and hung with the two-time defending champions.

“We certainly didn’t have anything handed to us,” McGraw said. “And it was an amazing accomplishment, I think, for this team. So I would say not as much fate as hard work.”

With the win, McGraw has beaten legendary coaches Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma in consecutive games. Prior to this year, one in which McGraw will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, no team had ever beaten both Tennessee and Connecticut in the same tournament.

“I think this is my week for exorcising demons and getting over the hump of some of the best programs in the game,” McGraw said. “This is an incredible victory for our team and our program to beat a quality team with a great player like [senior forward] Maya Moore.”

Moore scored 36 points, but went 14-of-30 from the field. At one point in the second half the Connecticut leader scored 13 consecutive points, a stretch that narrowed the Irish lead from 12 to three. But in the end, Moore, who was playing in her final collegiate game, missed shots and critical free throws down the stretch and watched as her team’s hopes for a third consecutive championship faded away.

“Notre Dame came to win,” she said. “They came to play. Every single person that they brought in I think came in and did exactly what they could do.”

Moore scored 15 of Connecticut’s 32 first half points, while Diggins scored 14 of Notre Dame’s 26. For most of the game, the matchup between the two resembled a heavyweight bout, with each player consistently one-upping the other.

The Irish took advantage of Huskies center Stefanie Dolson’s foul trouble. The freshman picked up her fourth personal foul with 14 minutes remaining and did not reenter the game until the 8:37 mark. Without a low post presence, the Huskies were vulnerable and Notre Dame imposed its will offensively.

“Once we took [Dolson] out we just didn’t have much of a presence physically inside, and they took advantage of that,” Auriemma said. “They drove the ball into the lane and they forced us to make — as [sophomore guard Kelly Faris] and [Moore] said, we made some mistakes defensively, and sometimes teams can’t capitalize on your mistakes. But Notre Dame did tonight.”

Aside of Diggins, the Irish struggled to find offensive production in the first half. The sophomore shot 6-of-10 from the field in the period, while the rest of the team combined for only 12 points.

“In the second half we allowed [Diggins] to get everyone else involved,” Auriemma said. “It was the plays she made for other people, and that’s what great players do.”

Junior guard Natalie Novosel scored 18 points in the second half in an Irish surge over the last 20 minutes. She finished with 22 on 8-of-13 shooting.

“I think Skylar in the beginning kept us in the game,” Novosel said. “We weren’t really playing our game. We were letting [Connecticut] dictate the game for us. And I think in the second half I was frustrated that I didn’t contribute in the first half.”

Diggins, a South Bend native, grew up rooting for the Irish and was a fan when Notre Dame, led by current assistant coach and former player Niele Ivey, knocked off Connecticut in the 2001 national semifinals. Tonight, it was Diggins’ turn to lead the Irish to the championship game.

“[Reaching the championship game] is pretty high on my list, if not the top,” Diggins said.

Notre Dame, looking for its second national championship in program history, will face Texas A&M Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. at Conseco Fieldhouse on ESPN.