March 8, 2011
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Maya Moore's final BIG EAST championship was the most gratifying of her outstanding career.
Moore, who has never lost in the conference tournament, scored 22 points to help No. 1 Connecticut beat 10th-ranked Notre Dame 73-64 on Tuesday night for their fourth straight BIG EAST championship.
"It's been definitely the most difficult year, but we have shown some resiliency," she said. "I think overcoming some odds and being mentally tougher than people thought we'd be. Finding a way to win going through the regular season and being consistent enough to win all those games."
Even though she earned her second outstanding player award of the BIG EAST tournament, Moore would have cast her vote for freshman Stefanie Dolson, who led the Huskies with 24 points on Tuesday night.
"I told her she was my MVP," said Moore, who gave Dolson a giant bear hug as the final buzzer sounded. "Just the way she stayed aggressive, stayed confident and finished so well inside for us."
Dolson played all 40 minutes and matched her career high for points that she set two days earlier against Georgetown. Her development has been key in UConn's success this season.
"You look at her play the last three games and look at the player who fouled out in 12 minutes against Baylor the second game of the year and it's not the same person - not even close," coach Geno Auriemma said.
Dolson gives Connecticut a consistent inside presence, which was one of the biggest concerns with the loss of Tina Charles to graduation.
"Now that we have someone like her we can count on night in and night out we have a chance," Auriemma said. "If she hadn't developed to the point she is right now we wouldn't have any chance going into the NCAAs."
UConn (32-1) has won 20 straight games since losing to Stanford on Dec. 30 to snap the Huskies' record 90-game winning streak. It was the 21st time in the past 23 seasons that they were in the championship game.
The Huskies have won 17 BIG EAST championships overall.
While UConn has been a frequent visitor to the tournament title game, Notre Dame was making its first trip to the championship since 2001 when the Irish lost to UConn on a buzzer-beater by Sue Bird.
The Irish still have yet to win a championship in five tries.
Leading 41-40 early in the second half, UConn went on an 11-0 run to break open a close game.
Moore had three points and two assists during the burst. She also had a huge block on Diggins' drive that led to an easy layup on the other end by Bria Hartley.
The senior followed that with a 3-pointer from the corner with 12:44 left to cap the spurt and tie her with Penn State great Kelly Mazzante for ninth place on the career NCAA scoring list with 2,919 points.
Notre Dame didn't go away, going on a 15-6 spurt to close to 58-55 with 5:07 left. Novosel, who had left the game at the end of UConn's spurt, returned a few minutes later and scored the final seven points of the Irish's burst.
Moore wouldn't let Notre Dame get any closer, hitting a jumper from the corner to move past Mazzante. Dolson followed with a layup to restore the seven-point lead.
The Irish couldn't get within five the rest of the game.
"Maya made some really big shots, hit some real daggers in that second-half run," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
Moore became only the second two-time MVP of the tournament, joining former UConn great Kara Wolters (1995 and 1996). Moore also won the award as a sophomore. She became just the second player in conference history to win both the regular season and postseason MVP awards in the same year. Shelly Pennefather of Villanova was the only other player to do it.
It was the Huskies' 81st consecutive victory at home and 69th straight conference win. They will open up NCAA tournament play at home in Storrs for the first two rounds.
The Irish fell to 0-9 all time against UConn in the BIG EAST tournament.
It was the third game in three days for both teams. Coming into the tournament, UConn had a lack of depth with only six players getting a majority of the minutes. UConn was able to give most of its players a break in the 24-point semifinal win over Rutgers.
The Irish had to survive another slugfest with their Midwestern rival DePaul to get there and earn their first win over a top 10 team since 2006.
Diggins knows that despite the loss this tournament will get her team ready for the NCAAs.
"The BIG EAST is great for getting us ready for the tournament. This is like a Final Four game," the sophomore guard said. "We'll take this momentum and see where we are at and get ready for the (NCAA) tournament, which is going to be very competitive."
A big bright spot for Notre Dame was the play of freshman Natalie Achonwa, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the title game.
"I thought she had a great tournament, she did so many great things for us," McGraw said. "She's a great force inside and that's big news for us going forward."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame was playing in its fifth BIG EAST Championship final (now 0-5), with all five coming against Connecticut, and three of those decided by single digits (also 86-77 in 1997, and 78-76 in 2001, with both played at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.) ... all four times Notre Dame has been seeded third in the BIG EAST Championship, it has finished as the tournament runner-up, falling to Connecticut in the title game (1996, 1997, 1999 and 2011) ... the Fighting Irish are 5-7 against ranked teams this season, with all seven losses coming to top-15 opponents, including six that were decided by 11 points or fewer, five by single digits (three on shots inside the final 15 seconds of regulation and/or overtime), and four on the road ... this was the sixth time Notre Dame played a top-10 opponent this season, facing Connecticut three times (twice on the road), as well as road games at No. 9/10 Kentucky and No. 2/3 Baylor, and a neutral-site game against No. 9/13 DePaul ... the Fighting Irish played their first No. 1-ranked opponent since last year's BIG EAST Championship semifinal, when Connecticut pulled away late to defeat Notre Dame, 59-44, at Hartford's XL Center; the Fighting Irish are 2-17 all-time against AP top-ranked teams, with both wins coming over Connecticut in the 2000-01 season ... the Huskies move to 28-4 in the all-time series against Notre Dame, including a series-long 12-game winning streak, although two of this year's three meetings were decided by single digits (UConn also won 79-76 on Jan. 8 at Purcell Pavilion) ... Connecticut is 17-1 all-time at home against the Fighting Irish ... Notre Dame won the rebounding battle, 45-38, after playing the Huskies even on the glass in their first two meetings this year ... the Fighting Irish have outrebounded or been even with their opponents in rebounds in 29 of 33 games this season, including 22 of their last 23 outings (exception was Sunday's BIG EAST quarterfinal win over Louisville, which earned a 37-32 edge over Notre Dame on the boards) ... the Fighting Irish shot a season-low 33.8 percent from the field (previous low was .360 against Connecticut on Jan. 8 at Purcell Pavilion), just the fifth time all year Notre Dame has not shot better than 40 percent in a game ... conversely, Notre Dame shot a season-best 87.5 percent from the free throw line, bettering their previous high at the charity stripe (.860), set on Nov. 27 against Wake Forest at Purcell Pavilion ... sophomore guard Skylar Diggins and junior guard Natalie Novosel represented the Fighting Irish on the BIG EAST All-Tournament Team, the first time Notre Dame has placed multiple players on that squad in the same season since 2001, when Alicia Ratay, Ruth Riley and Kelley Siemon all earned that honor ... Diggins made the conference all-tournament team for the second consecutive season, becoming just the fourth Notre Dame player to be a two-time honoree, along with Beth Morgan (1996, 1997), Katryna Gaither (1996, 1997) and Riley (1999, 2000, 2001) ... Diggins recorded her eighth "5-5-5" game of the season, and the 16th of her young career ... Diggins also topped the 950-point mark for her career, currently standing with 953 points through 68 games under the Golden Dome ... freshman forward Natalie Achonwa posted her first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in Tuesday's loss to Connecticut -- it was Achonwa's second double-figure rebounding game, following a career-high 13 caroms at No. 9/10 Kentucky on Nov. 21 ... Notre Dame now awaits the announcement of the 64-team field for the 2011 NCAA Championship, with the pairings set to be unveiled at 7 p.m. (ET) Monday live on ESPN -- should the Fighting Irish earn an at-large berth to the tournament, it would be their 16th consecutive NCAA bid (coinciding exactly with their membership in the BIG EAST, which began in 1995-96) and the program's 18th NCAA Championship selection overall (adding in prior berths in 1992 and 1994).