6:59 am, April 01, 2012
DENVER — Notre Dame's Fighting Irish took the fight to Connecticut on Sunday and now the Irish are in the women's basketball national championship game for a second consecutive season.
In a bruising national semifinal, the Irish (35-3) battled their way to an exhilarating 83-75 overtime victory to reach Tuesday's national championship game against Baylor (39-0) in Denver's Pepsi Center. Tip-off is slated for 8:30 p.m. EDT, and ESPN has the telecast. Baylor beat Stanford
Baylor beat Notre Dame 94-81 on Nov. 20 in Waco, Texas.
Connecticut is eliminated with a 33-5 record.
Notre Dame, which won the national title in 2001, has beaten seven-time national champion Connecticut four of the last five times the two Big East powers have squared off. The Irish are 3-0 against Connecticut in Final Four games.
“I am just so proud of our team right now, because at the end of regulation we had the game won with about 1:13 to go, and we simply gave it back to them,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “Then we had to make some spectacular plays to claw our way out ... We really earned that one.”
Natalie Novosel led the Irish with 20 points and seven rebounds. Her reverse offensive putback with three seconds left sent the game into overtime. Skylar Diggins scored 19 points. Devereaux Peters had 17 points and 12 rebounds and Brittany Mallory scored 11 points, including a pair of clutch 3-pointers in overtime.
Connecticut had 21 turnovers and the Irish 16.
Stefanie Dolson scored 20 points and Bria Hartley 18 for Connecticut.
Notre Dame saw a six-point lead, 65-59, slip away in the final 2:52 of regulation and Novosel gave the Irish new life with the put-back off a Diggins miss.
UConn grabbed the early lead in overtime, 70-67, on a 3-pointer by Hartley, but the Irish answered with back-to-back 3s by Diggins and Mallory for a 73-70 lead. Dolson powered inside for a basket to cut the Irish lead to one, 73-72.
That's when UConn's Hartley swiped the ball and drove in for a layup. Diggins raced down the floor and blocked Hartley's shot, grabbing the loose ball. Mallory connected on the Irish possession for a 76-72 lead with 1:30 left in overtime.
“That was game-saving,” McGraw said of Diggins' sprint to get the block. “That was huge. You can't even — that would have turned the game around had (Connecticut) made that layup. So it was just so important.
“And as Dev said, a lot of times you turn the ball over, you tend to put your head down and kind of jog back and hope somebody gets there. But (Skylar) sprinted the floor, made that huge play. I think when she came out of there, I don't think anybody saw where she was. All of a sudden she came dribbling out of the pack. And I think it just gave us such a big momentum lift, and then Brittany (Mallory) hitting the 3 just topped it off.”
Diggins said that after her turnover, she was determined not to let Hartley score.
“I just had to keep the ball in play, trying to tip it or just keep her from scoring without fouling,” Diggins said. “And then, with them being back there, we had an advantage. I sprinted. Nobody found Brittany. Everybody ran to the lane and she had a lot of time to set up for that shot.”
After nailing the 3, Mallory stole the ball with 55 seconds left in overtime. She was fouled with 41.1 seconds left and hit one free throw for a 77-72 lead. After Tiffany Hayes missed a layup, Kayla McBride rebounded and was fouled with 32.3 seconds left. McBride hit both free throws for a 79-72 Irish lead, and the Irish went on to put the game away.
Notre Dame struggled in the first half but trailed only 36-33 at halftime. Dolson picked up her third personal foul at the 19:29 mark of the second half, but stayed in the game. She then picked up her fourth personal foul with 17:19 left in the game and the scored tied at 39-39 and sat for seven minutes.
UConn didn't let the Irish pull too far away with Dolson on the bench, and when the Irish took a five-point lead at 54-49 with 10:15 left, the Huskies called time to get Dolson back on the court.
Diggins gave the Irish a six-point lead, 63-57, with 4:01 left in the game on an 18-footer from the right wing. The Irish still had a six-point lead at 65-59 with 2:52 left when Connecticut fought back.
UConn sliced the Irish lead to 65-63, with 1:19 to go on a basket by Kelly Faris following a scrum in which Novosel lost the ball. On the next Irish possession, Natalie Achonwa missed inside, and the Huskies rebounded. Faris drew a foul from Peters with :44.4 seconds left. Faris hit both to knot the score at 65.
Novosel missed a jumper and Hartley rebounded and drove in, but Diggins stole the ball. Hartley stole the ball back and Faris was fouled by Diggins on a drive to the basket with 11.8 left in the game.
Faris hit both free throws for a 67-65 UConn lead. Diggins drove the length of the court and misfired on a driving layup, but Novosel rebounded and hit the put-back. Hartley couldn't get off a shot before the buzzer sounded to end regulation.
In the first half, McBride hit a twisting jumper in the lane over Connecticut's Caroline Doty just before the first half buzzer to pull the Irish within three at halftime, 36-33. Connecticut pounded the ball inside to build a seven point lead, 32-25, with 3:20 left in the first half. The Huskies outscored the Irish in the paint in the first half, 26-16, led by Dolson's 12 points.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma credited Notre Dame with making big plays when it had to make them.
“We put ourselves in position to win the game,” Auriemma said. “That last two minutes, minute and a half of regulation was pretty amazing. And as most games do, it turned on the one great play by a great player (Novosel's putback). And then when we got into overtime, we just didn't have enough.
“They just made some huge shots. We took a chance on making it difficult. But Brittany Mallory made two huge shots, and that's who we wanted to shoot the ball. And, God bless her, she stepped up and made shots.”
CONNECTICUT (33-5): Stefanie Dolson 10-16 0-0 20, Tiffany Hayes 4-11 2-4 10, Caroline Doty 0-2 0-0 0, Bria Hartley 7-17 1-2 18, Kelly Faris 3-6 4-4 10, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis 5-13 3-3 13, Kiah Stokes 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 31-68 10-13 75.
NOTRE DAME (35-3): Devereaux Peters 6-10 5-8 17, Skylar Diggins 8-17 2-2 19, Natalie Novosel 5-19 8-11 20, Brittany Mallory 4-9 1-2 11, Kayla McBride 2-12 4-4 8, Natalie Achonwa 4-5 0-0 8. Totals 29-72 20-27 83.
Halftime — UConn 36-33. End Of Regulation — Tied 67. 3-Point Goals — UConn 3-13 (Hartley 3-6, Hayes 0-1, Faris 0-1, Doty 0-2, Mosqueda-Lewis 0-3), Notre Dame 5-14 (Novosel 2-5, Mallory 2-6, Diggins 1-2, McBride 0-1). Fouled Out — Faris. Rebounds — UConn 42 (Dolson 9), Notre Dame 43 (Peters 12). Assists — UConn 13 (Faris 5), Notre Dame 16 (Mallory 5). Total Fouls — UConn 18, Notre Dame 14. A — 19,028.