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Third strike

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, March 9, 2011

HARTFORD, Conn. — The third time was not the charm for the No. 7 Irish Tuesday as they dropped the Big East championship game to No. 1 Connecticut 73-64 in front of more than 10,000 fans at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.

The Irish (26-7, 13-3 Big East) kept up with the Huskies (32-1, 16-0) in the first half and led by as many as seven. Connecticut, however, remained unfazed due to the strong play of senior forward Maya Moore and freshman center Stefanie Dolson.

The Irish had no answer in the low post for Dolson, who finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. The freshman was named to the all-tournament team.

“Dolson really hurt us again,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “We thought we were going to double-team her, but we just didn’t get down there in time and she was a little too much for us in the post.”

Moore, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after the game, finished with 22 points on 9-of-20 shooting while playing all 40 minutes for Huskies coach Geno Auriemma.

“She [Moore] hit some real daggers on us in the second half,” McGraw said of the senior’s 12-point second half performance.

Notre Dame trailed by one heading into the half and Auriemma said it was the Huskies who felt fortunate to see the score at 32-31.

“To go up one after the way we played in the first half, I was shocked,” Auriemma said. “Shocked.”

After an early Huskies’ run to start the second half, the Irish cut the Connecticut lead back to one, but the back-to-back national champions responded with a stretch of their own.

Freshman guard Bria Hartley and Dolson each scored four points before Moore capped off an 11-0 run with a 3-pointer from the corner. While the Irish threatened the Huskies later in the half, they were never able to overcome the 12-point deficit.

Irish sophomore guard Skylar Diggins said the loss to Connecticut was a difficult way for Notre Dame to end the Big East season.

“Obviously losing period frustrates us because of how hard we work to get to this level,” Diggins said after scoring 14 points in a 5-of-16 shooting effort. “We work very hard. I think this team had the mindset that we were going to win it. I think we didn’t play not to lose, we played to win tonight and that’s the difference.”

The Irish stormed out of the gate with a four-point lead to start the game, led by senior forward Becca Bruszewski. Bruszewski, a game-time decision after being listed as doubtful with a rib injury following Notre Dame’s 71-67 semifinals victory over DePaul, fought through the pain and made an impact early, scoring six of Notre Dame’s first eight points. After picking up two personal fouls quickly in the first-half though, Bruszewski sat out the final five minutes leading to halftime.

Just as she did against DePaul, Irish freshman forward Natalie Achonwa played a critical role for Notre Dame. Achonwa carried her solid semifinals performance into the contest against the Huskies, scoring eight points on 4-of-4 shooting and grabbing four rebounds in 14 first-half minutes.

“I thought she had a great tournament,” McGraw said of her freshman forward. “I thought she could’ve been on the all-tournament team because she just did so many great things for us off the bench. You could see she wasn’t intimidated. Overall I was really pleased with the way she played.”

Achonwa finished the game with a double-double, recording 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Diggins said Notre Dame’s focus is now on the NCAA tournament.

“We know this ends our second season,” she said. “We’re starting the tournament and we’ll see where we’re at on Monday. We can’t do anything but learn from it and move on.”