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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish reach championship game for second straight year

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Having reached the NCAA championship game after a spectacular season, the Irish were on the verge of a win that would have meant everything to the program. It would have been the second national championship in program history, revenge for 2011’s title-game loss to Texas A&M and a fitting conclusion for one of the best graduating classes in school history.

Instead, the No. 4 Irish (35-4, 15-1 Big East) ended their season on the wrong end of the sport’s biggest night for the second straight year, falling to Baylor 80-61 in the title game.

After jumping into the national spotlight with last year’s run to the tournament’s final round – a path that took them straight through top-seeds Connecticut and Tennessee – the Irish opened the 2011-2012 season ranked second nationally behind only No. 1 Baylor (40-0, 18-0 Big 12). Hardly a week into the season, the nation’s top two teams had a chance to face off in the Preseason WNIT Championship in what would be a preview of the season’s finale. Led by junior center Brittney Griner’s 32 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks, the Lady Bears took the contest, 94-81, in Waco, Texas.

Following the early-season loss to Baylor the Irish managed to capture a tournament title of their own at the Junkaroo Jam in the Bahamas. Irish senior guard Natalie Novosel hit a buzzer-beater in Notre Dame’s 56-54 win against No. 8 Duke in the title game.

“I think … it was key to our season because it just, really, gave us great confidence to beat a ranked team on the road and to just know how poorly we played in the first half and then to come back and play so well,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

Novosel’s heroics began what would turn into a 21-game winning streak for the Irish. During the second-longest winning-streak in program history, the Irish defeated seven teams ranked in the top 18, including four ranked in the top eight. Notre Dame blew out in-state rival No. 12 Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., before handing No. 7 Kentucky a 92-83 loss, downing No. 2 Connecticut in overtime, disposing of No. 18 Georgetown, thrashing No. 7 Tennessee and beating No. 13 Rutgers by 30 points.

During the streak the Irish held an average margin of victory of 32.3 points, but McGraw said she knew her team was headed toward a loss.

“I think what happens when you get on a win streak – and not everybody is fortunate enough to [win] 21 in a row – but you get to a point where there is almost a pressure of winning every game,” she said. “You are trying to keep the streak alive rather than just playing the game and having fun, so I think it changed our mental state a little bit. I think we were a little not as relaxed going into games and we started to shoot poorly and we weren’t defending quite as well and we just kind of knew that we were in for a letdown and then it happened against West Virginia.”

On Feb. 12, more than two and a half months after the streak began, the Irish fell on their home floor to the Mountaineers (24-10, 11-5 Big East), 65-63. Irish junior guard Skylar Diggins racked up 32 points in the game and Irish graduate student forward Devereaux Peters added 17 rebounds and six blocks, but West Virginia junior center Aysa Bussie notched 22 points and eight rebounds to lead the visiting team to victory.

After their first loss in 22 games, the Irish concluded their regular season with four straight wins and secured the first Big East regular-season title in school history with a 72-59 road victory over Connecticut in the finale.

“[The regular season title] meant a lot because there were so many ranked teams in the conference this year,” McGraw said. “We had eight teams in the [national] tournament and to go through the league and win as many games as we did really was a remarkable accomplishment for us.”

As the top seeds in the conference tournament, the Irish earned a rematch with the Mountaineers in the Big East tournament semifinals. Notre Dame avenged its loss from several weeks earlier with a 73-45 win and moved on to the conference title game to face the Huskies. The Irish were unable to add their first ever Big East tournament title to the season’s haul and instead finished as league runner-up for the sixth time following UConn’s 63-54 victory.

Despite the late stumble to Connecticut, the Irish entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed and hosted opening-round wins over Liberty and California in Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame easily moved past St. Bonaventure and Maryland in the next two rounds before facing off with conference rival Connecticut – for the fourth time of the season – in the Final Four in Denver.

“It’s been a great rivalry. It’s been a bit bitter at times, I think where neither one of us wants to lose,” McGraw said of her team’s encounters with the Huskies. “Certainly, the first year for us to win the Big East regular season outright, which you would think we would have done that before, and Geno often says it’s tougher to win the Big East than to win the national title, and he might be right about that … They just have such a great program, so when we do beat them, it definitely means a lot to us.”

The Irish were able to win their fourth game against Connecticut in five meetings with an 83-75 overtime win, but not before allowing Connecticut junior center Stefanie Dolson to dominate the paint early as she scored 12 first-half points. The Irish entered halftime down three and carried a modest lead throughout most of the second half, but nearly lost their chance at returning to the championship game. Up 65-59 with under three minutes remaining, the Irish failed to score as Connecticut put in seven-straight points to take a two-point lead with only seconds remaining. Novosel’s put-back layup with 4.6 seconds remaining sent the game into overtime, where the Irish ran away with the contest behind Irish graduate student guard Brittany Mallory’s pair of 3-pointers.

In the title game, the Irish struggled early and trailed by as much as 14, but pulled to within six by halftime and cut the deficit to three just five minutes into the second half.

However, the Irish were unable to keep pace with Baylor in the second half as Brittney Griner finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Peters rode the bench for the Irish for much of the game, playing only 15 minutes due to foul trouble, and Novosel scored only five points on 0-11 shooting. Diggins paced the Irish with 20 points in the losing effort.

Despite the disappointing championship-game loss to the Lady Bears, the Irish consider their season to be a success.

“It was a great season, and I think Baylor was the best team in the country going through the season undefeated,” McGraw said. “We wish we would have played better and made some shots and felt better about our game and hang in there, but it certainly doesn’t take away from the success and the great things they accomplished all season long.”

With the departures of Peters, Novosel (both of whom went in the first round of the WNBA draft in April), Mallory and senior guard Fraderica Miller, the Irish will rely heavily on Diggins and sophomore guard Kayla McBride as the only two returning starters next season, McGraw said.

“Next year we have a lot of holes to fill, with three starters lost plus Fraderica Miller who came off the bench to give us great minutes on the defensive side,” McGraw said. “I think [defense] is what we are going to miss the most. The best defender in the Big East in Devereaux Peters, the team’s best defender on the perimeter in Brittany Mallory and Fraderica Miller, who was probably our next best defender, so our defense is going to have a lot of shoes to fill. We really are going to look to the returning players and then of course the incoming freshmen.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu