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Bernard: Irish clinch Big East title, solidify dominance (March 5)

Cory Bernard | Tuesday, March 5, 2013

This game was about a lot of things for the No. 2 Irish. It was about finishing undefeated in the Big East and earning a conference title. It was about further strengthening Notre Dame’s resume for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It was about beating a fellow top-10 opponent in prime time in front of a packed Purcell Pavilion and a national television audience.

But more than anything else, this game was about the culmination of a steady rise to dominance in South Bend. This was senior guard Skylar Diggins’ final regular-season victory in an Irish uniform and it came after three overtimes against rival Connecticut. You could not have scripted a better finish.

In the past two decades, the Huskies have been the undisputed top dog in the Big East. They have won seven national championships since Geno Auriemma became head coach in 1985. Names like Taurasi and Moore have worn a Connecticut uniform on their way to national player of the year awards and NCAA titles.

However, ever since Diggins suited up for Notre Dame in 2009, the balance of power has begun to change. It has not come suddenly, but rather over the course of four years.

As a freshman, Diggins led the Irish to a 29-6 record, but their games against Connecticut showed the still-present talent gap. The Huskies defeated Notre Dame twice in the regular season and once in the Big East tournament. None of the games were close.

Notre Dame lost twice to Connecticut in the regular season the next year as well, but only three points decided the game at home in Purcell. Notre Dame was inching closer. Despite another loss to the Huskies in the 2011 Big East tournament, the Irish rolled through the NCAA tournament and met their nemesis again in the Final Four. This time, Diggins and company topped Maya Moore and the Huskies to punch their ticket to the national championship game. The Irish were on their way.

In her junior year, Diggins led the Irish to a 35-4 record and orchestrated victories over Connecticut during both of the schools’ regular-season meetings. Although Notre Dame lost to the Huskies in the 2012 Big East tournament, they once again beat Connecticut in the Final Four. Notre Dame had arrived.

This season, Diggins and the Irish have again completed a regular-season sweep of the Huskies. It wasn’t always pretty. Notre Dame’s best player shot 11-for-31 from the floor, including 0-for-5 from the 3-point line, and turned the ball over eight times. But as anyone who has watched Diggins for the last four years can tell you, her game is not about numbers. It’s about winning.

With one minute remaining in the third overtime, Diggins tied up Huskies senior guard Kelly Faris, turning the ball over to the Irish and all but sealing the victory. She let out a scream as the crowd roared and jogged to the sideline to high-five former Irish center Ruth Riley. In a game replete with symbolic moments, this move topped them all. Notre Dame’s current All-American connected with its former All-American, who led the Irish to the program’s only national title in 2001.

On her final night in Purcell against her longtime rival, Diggins announced loud and clear: This game was about more than one year or one team. It was about the swan song to a legendary collegiate career and the desire to continue winning until it is capped with the ultimate prize.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu