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Myers: The better team comes out on top in Final Four (Apr. 4)

Laura Myers | Monday, April 4, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s pretty simple, really.

The team that played better won. The team that made more shots, committed less fouls and grabbed more rebounds won. The team with more contributing players won.

But it’s not that simple. Because Notre Dame won.

And Connecticut lost.

Notre Dame won on the strength of a dominant point guard and a suffocating defense. Connecticut lost because it lost its composure.

The team that played better won.

The team that no one expected to get this far, that exited too early in the last two NCAA tournaments, that started the year 2-2 and lost to Connecticut three times, is playing for a national championship.

Just like it did 10 years ago. In the national semifinals in 2001, Notre Dame won on the strength of a dominant point guard and a suffocating defense. Connecticut lost, 90-75.

In that game, point guard Niele Ivey scored 24 points.

In this game, point guard Skylar Diggins scored 28.

The parallels continue. And they matter. The 2001 team is an important part of this one, through Ivey’s presence on the bench, through the conversations the former and present players have had, and the inspiration they’ve provided.

But it’s time to look at this team in its own light.

It’s time to believe. But not in fate, or destiny.

It’s time to believe in the 2011 Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

“It’s not as much fate as hard work,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw admitted after the win.

Notre Dame went into halftime trailing 34-26. At 5:54, they were up 59-47. Everything seemed to be breaking Notre Dame’s way in those 14 minutes. At one point, a referee called an out-of-bounds ball for Connecticut, then changed the call and gave the ball to the Irish. The momentum, and the Indiana crowd, belonged to Notre Dame.

Not because of luck, or fate, or anything else. Because of hard work.

Notre Dame made their shots. In its past three meetings with Connecticut, Notre Dame shot a combined 35.3 percent. Tonight, the Irish shot 51.9 percent, and 55.6 percent in the second half.

Notre Dame got inside and drew fouls. Connecticut rarely fouls, which is why it’s successful running a six-man rotation. When center Stefanie Dolson committed her fourth personal, it was a problem for the Huskies.

Notre Dame won in the paint. Senior forwards Becca Bruszewski and Devereax Peters took advantage of Dolson’s absence to grab eight and seven rebounds, respectively. Notre Dame ended up with a 40-24 scoring advantage in the paint, and a 39-27 rebounding lead.

Most important of all, Notre Dame’s star out-played Connecticut’s. Maya Moore is without a doubt the best player in college basketball. The worst part of this loss for the sport, and the best part for Notre Dame, is that it ended her career.

Tonight, though, Skylar Diggins beat Maya Moore.

Before the game, Moore said the win would go to whoever wanted it more. That’s not what happened. It was impossible for either to want it more than they did.

But Diggins played better, and Notre Dame won.

Both played with intensity and at times both carried their teams. Moore finished with 36 points to Diggins’ 28. But Moore also shot 14-of-30, 5-of-13 from 3 and a surprising 3-of-7 from the free throw line. She missed two straight free throws when the Huskies were down 40-47 with 9:31 to play, and missed two of three when down 67-61 with 1:18 left. Who knows how the game would have ended if she’d made those.

Diggins was the only reason Notre Dame stayed in it in the first half. At the break, she had scored 14, and three other players had scored four. Then she played even better in the second half, making the key shots she needed to make as well as all of her six free throws. She ran the team. She led them to victory.

“I like to be the voice of calm, even though sometimes I was pretending. I was really nervous but they thought I was calm,” Diggins said after the game.

That’s how a leader acts in the biggest game of her career.

And that’s why Notre Dame won, and Connecticut lost.