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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish return to Final Four, fall to UConn

Brian Hartnett | Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The third time did not prove to be a charm for No. 2 Notre Dame.

Despite losing three starters from a 2011-2012 squad that fell to undefeated Baylor in the national championship game, the 2012-2013 Irish (35-2, 16-0 Big East) put together one of the most successful seasons in program history, rattling off a 30-game win streak, earning a No. 1 seed and booking their third consecutive trip to the Final Four.

In the end, however, Notre Dame came up empty-handed yet again, as the Irish lost to fellow No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Connecticut, 83-65, in the national semifinals in New Orleans.

Despite the disappointing ending, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she was proud of the way her team defied expectations throughout the season.

“Nobody expected us to be in the Final Four,” she said. “We graduated three starters and thought we were rebuilding, but I think the core of the team, the veterans – [junior forward] Natalie Achonwa, [junior guard] Kayla McBride and [senior guard] Skylar Diggins – really stepped up and had great seasons.”

Notre Dame entered the season charged with the task of replacing guards Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory and forward Devereaux Peters from a team that finished as the national championship runner-up. And although the Irish entered the season coming off two consecutive title game appearances, only three of the Big East’s 16 head coaches predicted Notre Dame to win the conference title in a preseason poll.

But Notre Dame found a number of different contributors to help fill the scoring and rebounding void left by the trio of departed seniors.

Freshman guard Jewell Loyd stepped into the starting lineup almost immediately and took an active role in Notre Dame’s offense, finishing the season averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Loyd was named the United State Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) National Freshman of the Year, as well as the Big East Freshman of the Year.

“I thought she would contribute, but I didn’t expect her to come along this quickly,” McGraw said of Loyd. “I don’t think you ever expect a freshman to play so well so early in the season.”

After playing a reserve role the past two seasons, Achonwa became Notre Dame’s main threat in the paint. The 6-foot-3 forward, who played for the Canadian national team in the 2012 Summer Olympics, averaged 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and recorded a school-record 19 double-doubles on the season.

“[Achonwa] came in with a lot of confidence having played on the Canadian Olympic team, which really helped her,” McGraw said. “She gained some confidence and aggressiveness and was assertive on offense. She did so many great things that we needed, and we expect great things from her next year.”

McBride was no stranger to the starting lineup, but she nonetheless took on an increased role in the offense and improved her scoring numbers. McBride finished second on the team with an average of 15.9 points per game and earned third-team All-America honors.

“[McBride] had a phenomenal season to get to be an All-American,” McGraw said. “She wasn’t even on the All-Big East preseason team. She made so many big shots for us this year.”

From the start of the season, most of the attention around the team was focused on Diggins, who entered the season as one of the most accomplished players in Notre Dame history. Diggins capped off her final season in an Irish uniform by averaging 17.1 points, 6.1 assists and 3.1 steals per game. 

Diggins was a unanimous first-team All-America selection and received the Big East Player of the Year award for the second straight season. Diggins became Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer, breaking the record previously held by Irish assistant coach Beth Cunningham, and also became the program’s all-time leader in steals, games started and minutes played.

“She’s the best player to ever play here,” McGraw said of Diggins. “I think without question the contribution that she made was amazing, and it exceeded expectations. I think she was able to accomplish what no one was able to do before here and a lot of the records she set will remain.”

Notre Dame’s players weren’t the only ones earning accolades, as McGraw took home both the Associated Press National Coach of the Year award and the USWBA National Coach of the Year award.

The Irish began their season in the most unusual of locations – aboard the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C. There, they defeated then-No. 19 Ohio State, 57-51, on a cold, windy playing surface. Notre Dame would go on to win its first five games, including a road victory over then-No. 19 UCLA on Nov. 23, 2012.

Notre Dame’s first stumble came against then-No. 3 Baylor at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 5, as the Irish fell to the Bears, 73-61.

The Irish wouldn’t lose again until April, as the team went on a 30-game win streak that included three victories over Connecticut (35-4, 14-2). The Irish held on to top the Huskies, 73-72, on Jan. 5 and gutted out a gritty 96-87 three-overtime victory when the teams met again March 4. 

As the series shifted to Hartford, Conn., for the Big East tournament, the Irish continued their success against the Huskies, beating Connecticut, 61-59, in a tightly contested tournament championship game. With the victory, Notre Dame earned its first Big East postseason title in program history.

“We won 30 games in a row, which is a record that even our [2000-2001 national] championship team couldn’t accomplish,” McGraw said. “[It was great] to beat Connecticut three times and win the Big East tournament. We’ve never won the Big East tournament before, so that was a moment we really treasured.”

Although Notre Dame went undefeated in Big East play, the Irish faced their share of scares from conference opponents. The team pulled out a narrow 75-71 overtime victory over South Florida on Jan. 8 and battled to the final whistle in close wins over Villanova and Syracuse.

McGraw said her team’s mental strength allowed it to get past many challenges over the course of the season.

“Mental toughness comes from everybody,” McGraw said. “I think the whole team had tremendous mental toughness, and you certainly need that throughout the season, to put away your feelings and play another overtime.”

Entering the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 ranked team in the country, the Irish survived early challenges from No. 16 seed Tennessee-Martin, No. 9 seed Iowa and No. 12 seed Kansas relatively unscathed.

Notre Dame’s matchup against No. 2 seed Duke in the Elite Eight was a little more difficult, as the Blue Devils took a 37-31 lead into halftime. But Notre Dame battled back, going on a 15-2 run early in the second half to take the lead and punch its ticket to New Orleans with an 87-76 win.

In New Orleans, the Irish faced the Huskies once again, but this time they were not able to replicate their regular season success. Notre Dame went cold on offense, shooting less than 30 percent from the field, and had no answer for Connecticut’s star freshman forward Breanna Stewart, who finished with 29 points.

“[The worst part of the season] was just losing to Connecticut,” McGraw said. “It was incredibly disappointing to have to lose that one after having beaten them three times.”

Next season, the Irish will be without Diggins, who was selected by the Tulsa Shock with the third overall pick in last month’s WNBA Draft. But McGraw said she thinks Diggins’ legacy will be reflected in the team’s returning players.

“I think [we can be successful] because [Diggins] left us an attitude,” McGraw said. “She taught us how to have a little big of swagger in our step, and I hope that’s something we learned and will carry on in the future.”

McGraw said the results of the past season solidified Notre Dame’s status as an elite program but added that the program still has not reached its ultimate goal.

“I think for us to look back and go to three Final Fours in a row is an accomplishment that not many programs in the country have ever done,” she said. “I think we’ll look at the moment of three [Final Fours] in a row and the great win streak.

“But our goal is still the national championship and until we get that, we won’t be satisfied.”

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu