March 7, 2011
BIG EAST Conference Championship -- Final
#10/8 [#3 seed] Notre Dame Fighting Irish (26-6 / 13-3 BIG EAST) vs. #1/1 [#1 seed] Connecticut Huskies (31-1 / 16-0 BIG EAST)
DATE: March 8, 2011
TIME: 7 p.m. ET
AT: Hartford, Conn. - XL Center (16,294)
SERIES: UCONN leads 27-4
1ST MTG: UCONN 87-64 (1/18/96)
LAST MTG: UCONN 78-57 (2/19/11)
TV: ESPN/ESPNHD (live) (Beth Mowins, p-b-p / Rebecca Lobo, color / Brooke Weisbrod, sideline)
RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) / UND.com (live) (Bob Nagle, p-b-p)
LIVE STATS: UND.com / bigeast.org
BIG EAST Title On The Line As No. 10/8 Irish Meets No. 1 Connecticut For Third Time
Less than 24 hours after its most important win of the season to date, No. 10/8 Notre Dame will aim for an even larger victory, as the Fighting Irish square off with top-ranked Connecticut for the third time this season at 7 p.m. (ET) Tuesday in the BIG EAST Championship final at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. It's the first BIG EAST title game appearance for Notre Dame since 2001, but the fifth since the program moved to the conference 16 seasons ago.
The third-seeded Fighting Irish (26-6) lived up to their nickname -- and then some -- on Monday night, battling tooth and nail with No. 9/13 DePaul for the second time in a week before finally edging past the No. 2 seed Blue Demons, 71-67. Notre Dame closed the game on a 7-2 run in the final 87 seconds to avenge a last-second loss to DePaul in Chicago only seven days earlier, a defeat that cost the Fighting Irish the second seed and sole possession of second place in the BIG EAST standings.
Sophomore guard Skylar Diggins scored a team-high 19 points for Notre Dame, including the go-ahead basket with 1:27 left, and then delivered the last of her four assists, a critical helper to freshman forward Natalie Achonwa for a layup with 41.6 seconds to go that put the Fighting Irish in the driver's seat. Two seniors also played pivotal roles in the victory, with forward Devereaux Peters chalking up 15 points and nine rebounds (coming one board shy of a double-double for the second night in a row), and guard Brittany Mallory adding nine points and forcing a key turnover with 10.8 seconds left before clinching the win by making two foul shots with 2.5 seconds to play.
The Notre Dame-Connecticut Series
Although the two sides did not face one another prior to Notre Dame joining the BIG EAST Conference in 1995-96, they have more than made up for lost time, playing 31 times in the ensuing 15-plus seasons. Connecticut leads the series, 27-4, including a current 11-game winning streak that matches the Huskies' longest run of success in the series (the first 11 games from 1996-2000).
Connecticut also is 16-1 all-time against Notre Dame in the Nutmeg State (either in Storrs or Hartford), with the lone Fighting Irish road victory in the series coming on Jan. 30, 2005 (a 65-59 triumph at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs).
Tuesday will mark the fifth time the teams have met in the BIG EAST Championship final, with the Huskies winning the previous four -- 71-54 in 1996, 86-77 in 1997, 96-75 in 1999 and 78-76 in 2001.
The Last Time Notre Dame and Connecticut Met
Bria Hartley had been struggling on offense so she changed her approach and just took what she was given.
The move worked as she scored a career-high 29 points to help No. 2 Connecticut to a 78-57 win over eighth-ranked Notre Dame on Feb. 19 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
Maya Moore added 12 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Huskies (26-1, 13-0 BIG EAST). Skylar Diggins scored 22 points and Natalie Novosel added 18 to lead Notre Dame (22-5, 11-2), which had its nine-game winning streak end.
On Jan. 8, UConn rallied for a 79-76 victory over the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame had won every game since by at least 15 points and had a week to prepare for this game.
One thing that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw might have noticed during the week was that so many teams get blown out at UConn before the first media timeout. Duke and Oklahoma were already out of their games by the 16-minute mark.
McGraw decided to take her team off the court while the Huskies were being introduced. The move paid off as the Fighting Irish scored the first seven points before Stefanie Dolson got the Huskies on the board nearly 2 1/2 minutes in with a hook shot.
Notre Dame -- wearing its alternate road green uniforms for the first time this season -- couldn't sustain the early wave of momentum as UConn rallied behind its freshmen. Dolson and Hartley combined for 18 of the team's first 24 points. Dolson finished with 15.
Hartley's three-pointer gave UConn its first lead at 17-16. That started a 10-1 spurt in which Hartley scored the first eight points. Dolson capped it with another hook shot.
Hartley, whose previous career high was 24 points against Louisville, had struggled the previous six games. She had reached double figures only once in that span, but against Notre Dame, she achieved double digits midway through the first half.
Moore, who passed Crystal Kelly of Western Kentucky to move into 14th on the career scoring list, got off to a slow start. She missed her first three shots and didn't have her first points until making a tough runner in the lane with 5:29 left in the half.
That seemed to get her going a little bit as she hit a three-pointer from the wing after Notre Dame cut its deficit to 30-25.
The Huskies led 37-29 at the half as Diggins kept the Fighting Irish in the game with 17 points by the break. That's the most an opposing player has scored in the first half against the Huskies this season -- and more than Providence (12) and Duke (15) put up as a team.
Tiffany Hayes and Moore hit back-to-back threes to start the second half and UConn extended its lead to 23. The Fighting Irish couldn't get within 14 the rest of the game.
Devereaux Peters, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds in the earlier meeting, was held scoreless. She picked up two quick fouls and sat out the final 14-plus minutes of the first half.
The Last Time Notre Dame and Connecticut Met In The BIG EAST Championship
Tina Charles, Maya Moore and the latest Connecticut Huskies' dynasty now has its own place in the record books.
Charles scored 16 points and Moore added 11 to help top-ranked Connecticut win an NCAA-record 71st straight game -- a 59-44 victory over No. 6 Notre Dame on March 8, 2010, in the semifinals of the BIG EAST Championship in Hartford, Conn.
Notre Dame kept it close for a half.
UConn only led 25-22 at the break -- its lowest scoring output in nearly three years. The Huskies then asserted themselves, led by Kalana Greene.
The senior hit just one of eight shots in the first 20 minutes, but scored the first four points of a decisive 13-4 run that gave UConn a 49-35 lead with 9:00 left. Moore's deep three-pointer capped the spurt. Greene finished the game with 15 points.
Notre Dame, which was led by Skylar Diggins' 10 points, was only able to close to 10. For 20 minutes it looked as if Notre Dame might have some of its traditional luck of the Irish. It was a sloppy first half as neither team could put together a sustained run. The Huskies took their biggest lead of the half on Caroline Doty's three-pointer with 8:37 left that made it 19-14. Notre Dame answered scoring six of the next eight points to close within one.
The Fighting Irish had plenty of chances to take the lead, but couldn't get over the hump. Charles then scored consecutive layups to extend the lead back to five and UConn went into the half only up three.
The Last Time Notre Dame and Connecticut Met In The BIG EAST Final
Sue Bird hit a fadeway jumper at the buzzer to lift No. 2 Connecticut to a 78-76 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame on March 6, 2001 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., giving the Huskies their 10th BIG EAST tournament championship.
Bird raced down court with the inbounds pass with 5.1 seconds left after Ruth Riley made the second of her two free throws after missing the first. Bird drove down the left side of the lane and fired the winner.
It was sweet redemption for the junior point guard, who lost her dribble out of bounds with 38 seconds and UConn up 76-75. The Fighting Irish worked the ball inside to the 6-foot-5 Riley, who was fouled by Kelly Schumacher.
It was the eighth straight tournament title for the Huskies, who avenged a loss earlier in the season to the Fighting Irish.
Bird finished with a team-high 15 points that included a half-court three-pointer at the buzzer to close out the first half and give UConn a 52-46 lead at the break. Riley, the 2001 BIG EAST Player of the Year, had a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds.
Riley's three-point play with 5:24 left started a 7-3 Notre Dame run and the Fighting Irish pulled even at 73-73 with 3:51 left. UConn regained the lead on Bird's three-pointer with 49.8 seconds remaining. Riley brought the Fighting Irish within one at 76-75 with an inside bucket and tied it on Notre Dame's next possession, setting up Bird's heroics.
The officials reviewed the tape to make sure time was on the clock when Bird launched the game-winner. And after a few anxious moments in the sold out 10,000-seat Gampel Pavilion, the basket was counted.
UConn freshman Diana Taurasi, the tournament MVP, scored 14 points before fouling out.
The Huskies lost senior guard Shea Ralph with 5:18 left in the first half to a leg injury. Ralph, the 2000 Final Four MVP, came down hard on her left knee while scrambling for her missed layup. She had 11 points and six assists when she went down. Ralph returned in the second half wearing an air splint and watched from courtside as her teammates played one of the closest games of the season.
There were seven lead changes, and UConn never led by more than seven points and focused on shutting down Notre Dame's three-point game. Riley didn't face many double teams and the teams played even in the paint, scoring 42 points apiece.
The Fighting Irish, the best three-point shooting team in the nation at 46 percent, shot 40 percent on 9-of-25 from behind the arc.
UConn's Schumacher, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash had six rebounds each.
Kelley Siemon finished with 16 points for Notre Dame.
Other Notre Dame-Connecticut Series Tidbits
Fighting Irish In The BIG EAST Championship
Notre Dame is in the midst of its 16th BIG EAST Championship this week, having compiled a 19-15 (.559) tournament record to date. Counting Tuesday's appearance, the Fighting Irish now have advanced to the title game five times (1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2011). Ironically, four of Notre Dame's four BIG EAST finals appearances have come when the tournament was held in the state of Connecticut (1996, 1997 and 2001 -- all on the UConn campus at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs; 2011 at the XL Center in Hartford).
Prior to joining the BIG EAST in 1995-96, Notre Dame was a member of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League). During its seven-year affiliation with that conference, the Fighting Irish won the MCC Tournament five times, with Notre Dame's most recent conference tourney title (of any kind) coming in 1994, following a 72-63 championship game win over Xavier at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Other BIG EAST Championship Tidbits
The Upper Hand
Take out Notre Dame's 78-57 loss at current No. 1 Connecticut on Feb. 19, and the Fighting Irish have not trailed by more than nine points at any time in 18 games against BIG EAST Conference opponents this season. The largest deficit Notre Dame has faced outside of that second meeting with UConn has been a 20-11 hole with 11:03 left in the first half at DePaul on Feb. 28.
Going one step further -- the Fighting Irish have led or been tied at halftime in 15 of their 18 games against other BIG EAST teams this season, with the lone exceptions being a 37-29 deficit at Connecticut (Feb. 19) and both games against DePaul (32-26 in Chicago on Feb. 28; 33-27 in Hartford on Monday).
Game #32 Recap: DePaul
Skylar Diggins was only 10 years old the last time Notre Dame was in the BIG EAST championship game.
Growing up in Indiana she vividly recalled it.
"I remember I was a fan watching it," the sophomore guard said. "I believe Sue Bird hit the shot and they wrote a book about it. I don't like that book."
Now, 10 years later, she'll get a chance to lead the Fighting Irish to their first title as No. 10 Notre Dame will face Connecticut for the championship Tuesday night.
"We know it's a great opportunity for our program," Diggins said.
She had 19 points and made several big plays down the stretch to help the Irish beat No. 9 DePaul 71-67 on Monday night in the semifinals of the BIG EAST tournament.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw appeared surprised to be reminded that the famous 2001 title game was her team's last appearance in the championship.
"It's very fitting," she said. "It's great to be back in the championship game."
The Fighting Irish (26-6) had to survive another slugfest with their Midwestern rival to get there and earn their first win over a top 10 team since 2006.
Trailing 65-64 with 1:43 left, Diggins hit a lay-in to give the Irish a one-point lead. After Sam Quigley missed a lay-in, Diggins found Natalie Achonwa for a basket to make it 68-65.
Keisha Hampton got DePaul (27-6) within one with 27.6 left.
Diggins hit one of two free throws and Hampton turned it over on the next possession. Brittany Mallory hit two free throws with 2.5 seconds left to seal the win.
Hampton scored 31 points for DePaul.
"Hampton, wow. We couldn't stop her," McGraw said.
Connecticut beat Rutgers 75-51 in the first semifinal. It's not often that a UConn game feels like a warm-up act, but as has often been the case over the last few years the Huskies pretty much had it decided by the half.
DePaul and Notre Dame have built quite the rivalry over the past few seasons. Five of the previous seven meetings have been decided by five points or less for the Midwestern schools who are a short two-hour drive apart.
"Them being close to us and being such a good team we know when we play them it will be competitive," Diggins said. "We have players from Chi-town. Being at a neutral site it was still a competitive game and we were luckily enough to come up with a victory."
DePaul coach Doug Bruno agreed that the proximity of the Midwestern catholic schools adds to the passion.
"It's a great rivalry and these players understand the intensity of the rivalry," he said. "It means more than just another college basketball game."
The two teams met last Monday and the Blue Demons rallied for a 70-69 victory as Felicia Chester hit a shot with just under six seconds left. That gave them the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
"This is kind of game you're going to play," Bruno said. "It's a tough basketball game that came down to a couple of possessions just like it did eight days ago, today we weren't on top."
The semifinal game was more of the same. Each time one team would make a run, the other responded. There were 11 lead changes in the second half alone.
Notre Dame erased a six-point halftime deficit and took its own six-point lead, 57-51. DePaul battled back to tie the game at 57 on Hampton's free throw with 7:25 left. The teams traded leads over the next five minutes.
The Fighting Irish led 61-60 when Becca Bruszewski got fouled on a lay-in. She limped off the court to the locker room and Natalie Novosel made one of the two free throws with 3:39 left to make it a two-point game.
Hampton responded with a three-point play to give the Blue Demons a 63-62 advantage. After Diggins hit two free throws, Hampton had another layup to make it 65-64 with 1:43 left.
Noting The DePaul Game