The fourth time was the charm for the Connecticut Huskies.
Senior Skylar Diggins had eight assists, four steals and three blocked shots against Connecticut, but the Huskies put the clams on Notre Dame overall in their 83-65 victory.
Losers of all three earlier meetings this year against Notre Dame — and in seven of the last eight encounters with the Irish — Connecticut used a strong surge in the closing minutes of the first half to gain some separation and then kept the Irish throttled with a suffocating all-around defense to record an 83-65 victory in Sunday night’s Final Four at New Orleans.
The 34-4 Huskies will play fellow Big East member Louisville for the national title on Tuesday night. Notre Dame, which won the Big East regular-season title and conference tournament, was 5-1 this season against the two national title participants.
The school-record 30-game winning streak by the Irish ends with a 35-2 ledger. The 2001 national champs had the previous best single-season record for Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw with a 34-2 mark.
Freshman Breanna Stewart, last year’s National Player of the Year in the high school ranks, tallied a career-high 29 points for the Huskies on 10-of-16 shooting from the floor, highlighted by a 4-of-5 effort from three-point range.
Conversely, none of Notre Dame’s standouts could get untracked offensively. One of only three teams to average more than 80 points per game this season, the Irish shot an abysmal 29.7 percent from the floor (27 of 74) and were under constant siege by UConn’s length inside and pressure on the outside, led by senior guard Kelly Faris.
Irish icon Skylar Diggins, the program’s all-time scoring leader with 2,357 points, ended her career converting only 3 of 15 from the field for 10 points. Fellow All-American and junior Kayla McBride was 5 of 20 from the field, and National Freshman of The Year Jewell Loyd was 5 of 17. The superb Irish perimeter trio was 13 of 52 collectively (25.0 percent).
Notre Dame couldn’t compensate on the inside either, especially with the Huskies blocking 12 shots, five of them by 6-5 junior Stefanie Dolson and four by the 6-4 Stewart. Irish junior center Natalie Achonwa, whose 19 double-doubles this year set a single-season school record, was 2 of 6 from the floor and finished with 10 points.
The game seesawed in the first 17 minutes and appeared destined for yet another pulsating finish. The Irish held a 26-25 lead with 3:44 left before Connecticut guard Bria Hartley drained a three, giving the Huskies a lead they would never relinquish.
UConn finished the half with a 14-3 run to build a 39-29 cushion at the intermission. The Irish converted only nine of their 38 field goal attempts (23.7 percent) in the first half and did not produce a single field goal outside the paint.
Notre Dame had two brief flurries in the second half, but in both cases Connecticut quickly turned the tied.
Trailing 50-43, Diggins put up an open shot in the lane that missed. Connecticut then converted back-to-back treys by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart to regain control with a 56-43 advantage.
The Irish registered another pulse when Loyd drilled a three and junior forward Ariel Braker banked home a short shot to reduce the deficit to 61-55, forcing a UConn timeout with 6:13 remaining.
Alas, the Huskies then scored seven unanswered points to regain their 13-point lead and squelch the last remaining hope of a dramatic Irish rally.