Two epic chapters are done with Connecticut this season … and two more potentially loom in the next month.
Notre Dame players celebrate their second straight Big East regular season title after their 96-87 triple-OT win against No. 3 Connecticut.
Two months after No. 5 Notre Dame’s 73-72 victory at No. 1 Connecticut in Storrs, the No. 2 Fighting Irish topped that thriller with a 96-87 triple-overtime triumph against the No. 3 Huskies on Monday night at the Purcell Pavilion. Next up is a probable meeting in the final of the Big East Championship in Hartford, Conn., next week, and then maybe a third straight Final Four clash between the likely No. 1 seeds.
Several times defeat seemed imminent for Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw’s squad, but for the sixth time in their last seven meetings it vanquished the Huskies.
“We’re the ‘Fighting Irish’ for a reason, and I thought we fought,” said All-America point guard Skylar Diggins, who played all 55 minutes in her final home game while finishing with a game high 29 points, a team high 11 rebounds and four steals.
Right after the game the Irish were presented the Big East regular season trophy for their perfect 16-0 ledger in the league. Notre Dame finished 28-1 overall and tied the school record for most consecutive victories with 23. Connecticut’s final regular season ledger is 27-3, and 14-2 in the Big East.
In addition to Diggins’ efforts, junior Kayla McBride hit a clutch three-pointer — the only one for Notre Dame on a night that it went 1-of-12 behind the arc — with 5.2 seconds left in the first overtime, thereby forcing a second. McBride finished with a career high 26 points, and she has scored 75 points in the last three.
Connecticut controlled most of the first half en route to a 34-28 lead at the intermission, but the game ebbed and flowed thereafter with 15 ties and 14 lead changes. A jumper by Huskies guard Kelly Faris put UConn ahead 64-63 with 53 seconds left in regulation, and then Notre Dame turned it over. But the Huskies followed with their own turnover — they had 35 compared to Notre Dame’s 21 — in what would become a pulsating final few seconds of regulation and then 15 minutes of overtime.
• Diggins made 1-of-2 free throws with 27.2 second left in regulation to knot the game at 64, and freshman Jewell Loyd (54 minutes, six points, six rebounds and four assists) forced a jump ball with 15.5 second left and the possession arrow in Notre Dame’s favor. With two seconds left, McBride missed an off-balance 12-footer.
• Connecticut was in control most of the first OT, scoring on its first three possessions while the Irish turned it over their first three times. The Huskies were up 70-64 but missed three one-and-one situations, and then made only one of two on their next trip to the foul line, helping keep Notre Dame in the game. McBride drilled the lone Irish trey to tie he game at 71 with 5.2 seconds left, resulting in a second OT. Advantage Notre Dame — especially because UConn starters Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley had fouled out during the first extra session.
"I saw and opening and took it," McBride said of tying the game with a trey that bounced around the rim before falling in. "I thought they might have fouled because they were up by three. But they didn't and I just took the shot."
• In the second overtime, Notre Dame fell behind again, 80-75, courtesy of terrific shooting by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who finished with 26 points and connected on five of her first six threes before missing her last three such attempts. Furthermore, McBride fouled out with 2:51 left in the second extra session. Once again, the Fighting Irish survived, with Diggins hitting two free throws, center Natalie Achonwa (17 points, eight rebounds) a lay-up and overshadowed senior Kaila Turner drilling a baseline jumper to knot the game at 81 with 46 seconds remaining. Another UConn turnover put the game into a third overtime.
After an exchange of baskets to begin the third OT, Notre Dame opened the floodgates with a 10-0 spurt that started with a Loyd jumper, and continued with two Loyd free throws, a steal and lay-in by Diggins and then four more free throws by junior Ariel Braker (six points, eight rebounds) and Diggins.
“Absolutely thrilled with the resilience of this group — to refuse to lose," McGraw said. "We were done in regulation and in the first and second overtime we just kept clawing away and got them to miss some free throws, which helped us, but what a battle. … just unbelievable. I can’t even think of any words.”
Just like in the previous home game with Syracuse in which the Irish fell behind by 15 points in the first half, Achonwa found herself in early foul trouble. She picked up her second at the 11:02 mark, forcing her to sit the remainder of the half.
McBride kept the Irish within striking distance with three straight drives or baskets inside before she too picked up her second foul near the four-minute mark of the first half.
The Irish were fortunate to be down only 34-28 at halftime because 1) Achonwa had neither a point nor rebound in her seven minutes on the floor and Loyd, who did not play Saturday at Providence because of concussive symptoms, was 0-for-8 from the floor. The Irish were only 12 of 40 (30 percent), with Diggins going 5 of 18 with no assists, highly uncharacteristic of her game.
One thing remained in character with Diggins and the Irish: they won again.