In women’s basketball this season, Notre Dame-Connecticut III might be considered the sport’s version of Ali-Frazier III. All that is taking away from the drama is IV might occur in the Final Four at New Orleans next month.
Skylar Diggins and Co., have won six of the last seven against UConn, but the Huskies own the Big East Championships with five straight titles.
No. 2 Notre Dame (30-1 overall) is on a school-record 25-game winning streak, with its lone defeat way back on Dec. 5 to current No. 1 Baylor (73-61), which defeated the Irish for the national title last year. No. 3 Connecticut's (29-3) lone losses are by six points to Baylor, 73-72 to Notre Dame on Jan. 8 and 96-87 in triple overtime to the Irish on March 4.
The two foes square off in the Big East Championship Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
On Monday evening, the Fighting Irish romped to an 83-59 victory versus No. 16 Louisville (24-8), while Connecticut defeated No. 22 Syracuse (24-7) in the semifinals, 64-51. The Huskies have won the conference tournament each of the past five years and 18 times overall. This will be their 23rd appearance in the final and they are attempting to keep alive a streak of winning either the Big East regular season crown or the conference tournament 20 consecutive years.
If there is a missing piece in Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw’s Hall of Fame career, it’s that she has never won the Big East Championship postseason event, although she has led the Irish to three regular season crowns. Amazingly, while McGraw and Co. are 3-0 against Connecticut in Final Four action, they are 0-6 versus the Huskies in Big East Championship finales. Will the seventh time be the charm?
Each of the last two years, Connecticut defeated Notre Dame in the Big East Championship final — but the Irish avenged those setbacks with Final Four conquests of the Huskies. Given the choice of one or the other, McGraw would take the outcomes of the past two seasons 10 times out of 10. In a remarkable turn of events in the series, the Irish have won six of the last seven meetings between the two superpowers.
Against Louisville on Monday evening, the Irish jumped to a 12-0 advantage before the Cardinals rallied to knot the game at 16. Two-time Big East Player of the Year Skylar Diggins then drilled the first of her four threes — in five attempts — in a contest the Irish would never trail.
Two more Diggins treys upped the advantage to 26-20 en route to a 32-26 lead at the intermission. Her fourth and final conversion beyond the arc made it 37-28 and from there the Irish defensive intensity began to overwhelm the Cardinals, who are still projected as a potential No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite having lost four players this season to injuries.
The cushion reached as high as 31 (68-37) before the Notre Dame starters took a rest, with none playing more than 28 minutes against Louisville.
Junior Kayla McBride paced the Irish with 17 points and sparked the quick start by hitting four of her first six shots. Diggins tallied 14 points and added six assists, while junior power forward Natalie Achonwa had her typically consistent game inside with 11 points and nine rebounds, one carom short of a single season school record 17 double-doubles.
Senior guard Kaila Turner, who has provided some clutch shooting off the bench the past few weeks, drained her first three treys to produce a 12-point performance.
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