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Title time

Matthew Robison | Sunday, April 1, 2012

DENVER – With 11 seconds to play in the second half, Connecticut guard Kelly Faris hit a free throw that would have ended Notre Dame’s season. With the Irish down two points, Irish junior guard Skylar Diggins received the inbounds pass, took it coast-to-coast, and missed a layup, a miss that would have ended Notre Dame’s season. Struggling through defenders, senior guard Natalie Novosel recovered the miss and sent the game to overtime, keeping Notre Dame’s season alive.

Behind two key three-pointers from graduate student guard Brittany Mallory and some clutch free throw shooting, Notre Dame (35-3) dominated the overtime period to advance to the national championship game for the second time in two years, winning 83-75.

“[The win] means so much for our program, our team, our fans,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “It’s so great for Notre Dame and I’m so blessed to be representing such a great school.”

Early in the contest, Connecticut (33-5) got everything it wanted on the offensive end. Sophomore center Stefanie Dolson overpowered Notre Dame’s post players, sliding off ball screens and knocking down layups. The Huskies also repeatedly beat the Irish on backdoor cuts to take command of the contest.

Momentum swung early in the second half when Dolson was whistled for her fourth foul only three minutes into the period, forcing her to sit the majority of the half. She finished with a team-high 20 points and nine rebounds.

“She really played well,” McGraw said. “We were really happy when she got that third foul and had to out of the game because we were having trouble guarding her.”

Even with Dolson on the bench, the Irish failed to pull away from the Huskies, and Connecticut stayed within striking distance the entire game. In a frantic final 90 seconds of regulation, Notre Dame almost gave the game away.

“We really struggled to take care of the ball with a couple of big turnovers at the end of regulation,” McGraw said. “But we really kept our poise [in overtime] and did a better job.”

Novosel was the hero in regulation, and Mallory was the hero in overtime. The graduate student sharpshooter scored seven points in the extra five minutes and carried the Irish with her calm demeanor.

“We didn’t want this to be our last game,” Mallory said. “We were tired and we fought. I’m just so proud of this team.”

Four players for the Irish scored in double figures. Novosel led the charge with 20 points and seven rebounds. Diggins scored 19 points, and graduate student forward Devereaux Peters added 17 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Sophomores Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa each added eight points.

Overcoming the disadvantage she faced in the post with an opponent three inches taller than her, Peters controlled the glass. As a team, the Irish pulled down 20 offensive rebounds.

“The rebounding was really important,” Peters said. “I think the guards came in and crashed, tipped some balls and got real key rebounds towards the end of the game.”

McGraw complimented her team’s heart in not letting the late comeback by the Huskies faze them and answering with a big performance in overtime.

“They just don’t quit,” McGraw said. “They just keep on going. They have the maturity, the poise, and that calm, that calm that Brittany [Mallory] brings.”

For their part, the Notre Dame players made it clear they play for their coach.

“We play this game for her,” Diggins said. “And this team, we want to get it. We’re hungry. We told her at the beginning of the game: We didn’t have you in the last game in the Big East tournament; we’re going to have you this time.”

Diggins said the win in the national semifinal was even more gratifying coming over conference rival Connecticut.

“I think it’s great for the Big East,” Diggins said. “Two straight years, two Final Four teams … But this is great. Yes, it’s that much sweeter because it’s UConn.”

Notre Dame is now 3-0 all-time in national semifinals against the Huskies. The Irish knocked off Connecticut to advance to the title game last year, as well as in 2001’s Final Four en route to a national crown.

The Irish will face Baylor in the national championship game at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. The game will be aired on ESPN.