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Slaying the demons

Andrew Owens | Tuesday, March 8, 2011

HARTFORD, Conn. — Irish senior Becca Bruszewski fouled out on Feb. 28 with under six minutes to play against DePaul, and freshman Natalie Achonwa stepped in against an imposing Blue Demon frontcourt in junior Keisha Hampton and senior Felicia Chester. The two set the tone down the stretch and knocked off Notre Dame, 70-69.

Fast-forward one week: The teams are locked in a close battle once again, this time with a berth in the Big East championship game on the line. Bruszewski was again forced to depart in the final minutes, now with a rib injury. Achonwa stepped into duty in her absence for the second time, but on this occasion she and her teammates avenged last week’s defeat with a strong effort down the stretch to capture a 71-67 victory and the program’s first appearance in the championship game in 10 years.

“I thought last week [Achonwa] really battled defensively,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said about her freshman forward. “Tonight, offensively, she was a completely different player. She was strong with the ball, she was confident and I think the offense helped her defense and vice versa. She played really well at both ends of the floor and that was the huge improvement from where she was.”

With the No. 10 Irish (26-6, 13-3 Big East) up 66-65 and 1:08 remaining in the game, Achonwa snatched a critical rebound after a DePaul missed layup. On the ensuing Notre Dame possession, sophomore Skylar Diggins fed her the ball for a layup to put the team up three with 41 seconds to go.

On the other end, Hampton hit a layup of her own to narrow the deficit to one point. After Diggins split her free throws to give Notre Dame a one-point advantage, it was senior guard Brittany Mallory’s time to shine.

With Blue Demon senior guard Sam Quigley bringing the ball up the court, Mallory recognized the play and went in aggressively for the steal. She jarred the ball loose and it was knocked out of bounds. The referee gave Notre Dame the possession.

“They had been running that same play where they screened down and came up for Hampton to get the ball,” Mallory said. “I just cheated up a little higher than I usual did, and it was a little loopy pass and I just got a hand on it. We dove after it and luckily it hit her out of bounds and we got the ball.”

With 10 seconds remaining, the Irish were able to inbound the pass and erase nearly eight seconds before the Blue Demons fouled. Mallory went to the line, hit both shots and sealed the deal for Notre Dame.

No. 9 DePaul (27-6, 13-3) fell behind 9-0 to start the game, but at that point Hampton sparked their offense. She scored 31 in the game, only a week after netting 17 against the Irish before fouling out.

“But Hampton, wow, she can really play,” McGraw said. “She did an outstanding job — we couldn’t stop her. Luckily we had enough scoring on the other side to win the game.”

Now that the Irish have faced their (Blue) Demons, the next and greatest challenge for this squad is knocking off an arch-rival — No. 1 Connecticut (31-1, 16-0). With their 75-51 semifinal victory over Rutgers, the three-time defending Big East champion Huskies have now won 13 consecutive games in the Big East tournament and 68 consecutive games overall in the conference. Arguably the closest Connecticut has been to losing during that stretch was during a trip to South Bend Jan. 8, a game the Huskies ultimately won 79-76.

“With the first game we saw we can play with them we can beat them,” Diggins said. “The mistakes that we made were ours.”

During their second matchup of the season Feb. 19, a 78-57 Connecticut blowout, the Huskies were not about to let the Irish threaten their home winning streak, which now stands at a record 80 games.

Tonight’s game, played at the XL Center, is regarded as a home game for Connecticut by the NCAA because they played six regular season games in the arena.

“In the second game we didn’t maintain that focus,” Diggins said. “You need to do that for 40 minutes against a team like that. We watched the film over and over.”

In one of the biggest games in program history, the Irish will look to end those streaks and add an achievement of their own to the record books — the school’s first ever Big East tournament championship. The teams square off Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Hartford, Conn.