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ND Women’s Basketball: Going out strong

Matthew Robison | Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fueled by 29 points and 11 rebounds from senior captain and guard Skylar Diggins, No. 2 Notre Dame mounted a series of late comebacks to defeat No. 3 Connecticut 96-87 in triple overtime Monday in Purcell Pavilion.

Diggins made the most of her final game in front of her hometown crowd and remarked this win will be especially memorable, as the victory clinched an outright Big East championship for Notre Dame (28-1, 16-0 Big East) and prevented a share of the title with the Huskies (27-3, 14-2).

“It’s bittersweet for me, this being my last game,” Diggins said. “But what a way to go out. I think we showed we’re not too good at sharing.”

Every time Notre Dame seemed like it was out of the game, it came firing back. The Irish have won their last four overtime games, but this was the first triple-overtime game in program history.

“I’m absolutely thrilled with the resilience of this group,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “They refuse to lose. We were done in regulation, in the first and second overtime. We just kept clawing away.”

Notre Dame had not hit a 3-point shot all game, but junior guard Kayla McBride calmly dribbled down the court and hit a game-tying bomb with less than six seconds left in the first overtime.

“I saw they were double-teaming [Diggins],” McBride said. “I was taking the ball out so it was basically a one-on-one situation. I saw an opening and took it.”

Trailing by five with two minutes left in the second overtime, Notre Dame mounted another comeback, eventually tying the game to force triple overtime.

McBride fouled out in overtime with a career-high 26 points. But to say she sat on the bench would be a stretch. McBride stood, jumped, waved her hands and pleaded with the Irish defense to get stops for the rest of the game.

In the third overtime, the Irish outscored Connecticut 15-6. The Huskies were without two of their best players, junior guard Bria Hartley and junior center Stefanie Dolson, who both fouled out at the end of regulation.

The Huskies had several chances to close out the game. In the first overtime period, leading by six, Connecticut missed the front end of a one-and-one on three straight trips to the free throw line.

“We couldn’t finish it off,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “Every opportunity we had to put it away, we let it slip away from us.”

Notre Dame forced 35 turnovers Monday, a number that baffled Auriemma and the Huskies. But McGraw attributed that number to Notre Dame’s aggressive style of defense.

“Our help side was pretty good,” McGraw said. “But generally when we ran at the ball and threw some double teams at them, that was most effective.”

Notre Dame shot just 30 percent from the field in the first half, making none of its six attempts from behind the arc. But Diggins and McBride both managed 11 first half points to keep the Irish close. Connecticut led 34-28 heading into the locker room.

Connecticut sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led all scorers with 13 points in the half.

“She’s a tremendous offensive player,” McGraw said. “She has so many things she can do. She was 3-for-4 [from behind the arc] in the first half and I felt like we never found her. She was wide open on all four of her threes in the first half. I thought we did a much better job in the second half guarding her.”

After two early fouls by Irish junior Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame primarily utilized a four-guard lineup. The 6-foot-5 Dolson managed eight points and five rebounds in the half. She also picked up two early fouls, but Auriemma kept her in the game.

Irish junior forward Ariel Braker finished with a career-high 10 rebounds and Achonwa returned to score 17 points in the second half and overtimes.

With the win, Notre Dame captures the Big East regular season title for the second straight season. Its 23-game winning streak is its longest since the 2000-01 season when the Irish won the national championship.

The Irish have now won six of their last seven matchups with Connecticut. Their last loss to the Huskies came in the Big East tournament championship game last season.

The Big East tournament starts Friday in Hartford, Conn. As the No. 1 seed, Notre Dame has a double-bye through the first two rounds. Its first game will be Sunday at 2 p.m. in the XL Center. It is highly likely that Notre Dame will see the Huskies again March 12 in the championship game. But the Irish have a full head of steam right now.

“We’re going to find a way to win,” McGraw said. “We’ve got it rolling right now. Whatever it takes, we’re going to find a way.”

Contact Matthew Robison at [email protected]