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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish fall to UConn in the Final Four

Cory Bernard | Monday, April 8, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – Before their game Sunday, the Irish had faced Connecticut three times this season. But they had not faced this version of the Huskies, the one led by a freshman phenom.

Connecticut rookie forward Breanna Stewart proved too much for the Irish (35-2) to handle and finished with 29 points, five rebounds and four blocks to lead the Huskies to an 83-65 victory over Notre Dame in the Final Four on Sunday in New Orleans.

Stewart was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Bridgeport Regional and entered the Final Four playing her best basketball. Going into Sunday’s game, the freshman was averaging 13.1 points per game, but she had steadily upped her scoring since the start of the Big East tournament. Stewart further outpaced her regular season output Sunday as she helped end Notre Dame’s season.

“It is really impressive to have a freshman have that kind of game, to be Most Outstanding Player in the regional and then to come into the Final Four and just play with such confidence to be the best player on the floor – well, on the team for Connecticut,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “You don’t expect a freshman to rise to the occasion like that. So I thought a phenomenal performance by her.”

Notre Dame and Connecticut also met in each of the last two Final Fours, with the Irish downing the Huskies on both previous occasions to advance to the national championship. This season Notre Dame beat Connecticut twice in the regular season and once in the Big East tournament before Sunday’s national semifinal.

Junior guard Kayla McBride led the Irish with 16 points and added six rebounds. Senior guard Skylar Diggins finished with 10 points, eight assists and six turnovers in her final game in an Irish uniform. McBride and Diggins finished a combined 8-for-35 from the field. As a team, the Irish converted 29.7 percent of their field goals.

“I didn’t feel good about it because we weren’t executing anything,” McGraw said of the Irish offense. “We weren’t running our stuff.  So we couldn’t even feel good about that.  We couldn’t feel good about, ‘Oh, we got a great shot,’ we just didn’t make it.”

Irish junior forward Natalie Achonwa said Notre Dame didn’t play well, but she also credited the Connecticut defense.

“[Connecticut] played a great game and we did not play our best game,” she said. “It’s a tragic time to not play your best basketball. We couldn’t hit shots and we tried to attack a little more. They played some great defense tonight.”

Notre Dame also struggled to stop the Huskies’ offense. Connecticut (34-4) shot 46.8 percent from the field, including 42.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“We just didn’t play good defense,” Diggins said. “And they got out in transition and they scored in half‑court offense too.  We didn’t lock down on defense like we normally do.  We just weren’t playing like ourselves.”

Despite shooting 9-for-38 in the first half, Notre Dame held a 26-25 lead with 3:22 left in the first half. But a 3-pointer from Huskies junior guard Bria Hartley sparked a 14-3 Connecticut run to end the half as Notre Dame entered the locker room trailing 39-29.

“I just don’t think we ever got into that rhythm where we could get comfortable, and so I think we were just a little on edge the whole time,” McGraw said of the first half. “And then all of a sudden we’re down 10.  And we just got in a giant hole at halftime, and that really I thought was the difference in the game.”

The Huskies never trailed in the second half but did see their lead cut to 61-55 after a jumper from Irish junior forward Ariel Braker with 6:26 left in the game. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma immediately called a timeout and the Huskies pushed their lead back to 13 with 4:08 left.

With the loss, Notre Dame’s season comes to a close. Connecticut will play for the national championship in a matchup with fellow Big East member Louisville on Tuesday.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu