April 7, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Breanna Stewart had all the answers to help UConn finally vanquish Notre Dame.
The stellar freshman scored a career-high 29 points to go with four blocks and was seemingly everywhere in leading the Huskies back to the national championship game with an 83-65 win over Notre Dame on Sunday night.
The Huskies will face Louisville in the title game Tuesday night, and it will be an all-BIG EAST affair after the Cardinals rallied to beat California 64-57 in the other semifinal. UConn will be going for its eighth national championship to match Tennessee for the most in women's basketball history.
No team has dominated Geno Auriemma's Huskies the way that the Irish had over the past few seasons. UConn (34-4) had lost the previous two national semifinals to the Irish and dropped three thrilling games this season to their rival.
Stewart and her teammates wouldn't let it happen again, ending the brilliant career of Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins. She finished her last college game with 10 points, going 3 for 15 from the field.
"Once you get here you're only going to beat great teams. And the reason Notre Dame has beaten us seven of the last eight times is because they're really, really good," Auriemma said. "For one night, that's what's great about the NCAA tournament, for one night, for just this night, we just needed to be better than them, and we were."
The Huskies built a 10-point halftime lead playing incredible defense, and Notre Dame (35-2) could only get within six in the second half as its school record 30-game winning streak came to an end.
The Huskies and Irish have developed the best rivalry in women's basketball over the past few seasons, and this game might have been the final chapter between the two with Notre Dame headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Two years ago, the Huskies won the first three meetings before Notre Dame shocked them in the national semifinals. Notre Dame had won seven of the previous eight meetings before Sunday night and this one, for once, started slowly. With the teams so familiar with each other, getting easy baskets was virtually impossible. Notre Dame went nearly 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal, missing 14 consecutive shots.
While UConn would usually knock out most opponents during a scoreless stretch like that, the Huskies couldn't take advantage against the Irish, scoring only four points themselves.
Neither team led by more than four points for the first 16 minutes. But trailing 26-25 with 3:44 left in the half, UConn took over. Bria Hartley, who has struggled all season while recovering from an ankle injury she suffered over the summer, was the spark. The junior guard started the spurt with a 3-pointer and added a nifty pullup moments later to make it 32-26.
After Notre Dame scored to pull within four, Morgan Tuck put back a miss and Stewart hit a 3-pointer. A Kelly Faris layup with 3.9 seconds left capped the burst and made it 39-29 at the break.
Diggins was 0 for 6 from the field in the first half as the Huskies harassed her all over the court. She scored the Irish's first two points on free throws and didn't have another point until getting a steal early in the second half and converting it for the easy layup to make it 42-35. The two-time All-American tried to do everything she could to rally her team. Twice she chased down Hartley on the break to block her shot.
"She's a champion," coach Muffet McGraw said of Diggins. "We didn't win it, but what she's done for us has been amazing. She leaves Notre Dame as the most celebrated and decorated player, the best player ever."
UConn led 50-43 with 12:22 left before Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart hit back-to-back 3s to give the Huskies their biggest lead of the game.
Notre Dame wasn't done, their star freshman Jewell Loyd scoring five points during a 9-2 run to get the Irish within 61-55.
That was as close as they could get as Stewart and UConn scored the next seven points to seal the victory. Stewart was the most heralded freshman coming into the season, but struggled through the middle part of the year. But ever since the BIG EAST tournament she's really been on a roll.
"Every player, especially young players, deal with things differently," Auriemma said. "And I think when the season ended, it just let the air out of the balloon and she said, 'Now I just want to play basketball.' My God, she was amazing tonight."
The 6-foot-4 budding star had 16 points in the loss to the Irish for the conference title and earned most outstanding player of the Bridgeport regional.
The loss ended an incredible season for Notre Dame and left Diggins without a national championship. The star guard had accomplished nearly everything else in her stellar career at the school, including helping her Irish turn around their rivalry against the Huskies.
"It's been a dream come true to play for my hometown school right in my backyard," Diggins said. "It's an experience I'll never forget."
Diggins said she spoke with Auriemma after the loss.
"Don't let this define my career," she said he told her, and that: "I've done more for women's basketball than some people have done who have won four championships."
"He just told me I was a good player," she said. "You respect that coming from such a good coach."
Notre Dame won a school record 30 straight games with the only other loss coming against Baylor in early December. The Irish won their second straight BIG EAST regular season title and first conference tournament championship. But only Oral Roberts since 1999-2000 has beaten an opponent four times in a season (UMKC), according to STATS LCC.
"I thought we looked nervous coming out and I don't know why we did," McGraw said. "We've been here before and certainly should have felt differently. We didn't get into a rhythm where we could get comfortable. We got in that giant hole at halftime, that was difference in the game."
-- ND --
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame sees its school-record 30-game winning streak come to an end, capping the second-longest winning streak by any fully-sponsored NCAA Championship Fighting Irish team in the 126-year history of Notre Dame athletics (softball won 33 in a row during the 2001 season) ... the Fighting Irish set a school record for single-season winning percentage (.946, 35-2), while tying program marks for most wins and fewest losses in a season (35-4 in 2011-12; 34-2 in 2000-01) ... Notre Dame falls for just the second time in 17 NCAA Championship games when it is a No. 1 seed in the tournament, with both losses coming at the hands of fellow top seeds (Baylor in the 2012 NCAA national championship game; Connecticut in the 2013 NCAA national semifinals) ... the Fighting Irish were making their fifth appearance in the NCAA Women's Final Four, having posted a 4-4 all-time record in women's college basketball's premiere event ... prior to Sunday's game, Notre Dame's largest deficit of the season was 15 points (22-7 with 12:45 left in the first half on Feb. 26 vs. No. 22/20 Syracuse, a game the Fighting Irish rallied to win 79-68 at Purcell Pavilion) ... the Fighting Irish shot below 30 percent from the field for the first time since Jan. 16, 2010, when they were held to a .269 field goal percentage (18-of-67) at Connecticut ... Notre Dame collected 28 offensive rebounds, their highest total on the offensive glass since Dec. 28, 2011, when it had 30 offensive rebounds in a win over Longwood at Purcell Pavilion ... Connecticut's 12 blocked shots were the most by a Fighting Irish opponent since Jan. 27, 2007, when the Huskies had 16 blocks ... the Fighting Irish had their 45-game winning streak snapped when having four players score in double figures, their first such setback since Feb. 28, 2011, at DePaul -- Notre Dame is 75-5 (.938) in the past four seasons when it has four double-digit scorers in a game ... the Fighting Irish set a single-season school record with its 81.2-points per game scoring average, eclipsing their old mark of 81.0 ppg. in 1998-99 ... Notre Dame also set new single-season program records with a .798 free throw percentage (previous best was .763 in 2011-12), 1,621 total rebounds (previous high was 1,589 in 2011-12), 722 assists (previous best was 698 in 2011-12) and a 1.27 assist/turnover ratio (previous high was 1.15 in 2000-01) ... the Fighting Irish senior class of guards/co-captains Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner departs with a career record of 130-20 (.867; school record for wins by one class), having led the program to three of its five NCAA Women's Final Four appearances (all in the past three seasons), as well as two outright BIG EAST Conference regular season titles (2012 and 2013), the 2013 BIG EAST Championship crown and 10 combined wins against Connecticut and Tennessee, by far the most by any senior class in the nation during the past 25 years (Rutgers Class of 2008 is next closest with six combined wins).