Notre Dame’s Joyous Farewell

Now that’s going out in style.

Junior guard Kayla McBride scored 23 points against Connecticut and was named the tournament's outstanding player.

On the same day that Notre Dame officially announced that it will officially begin its Atlantic Coast Conference affiliation on July 1 and commence league play there for the 2013-14 academic year, head coach Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish won their first ever Big East Championship (postseason tournament) since joining the league in 1995.

Skylar Diggins’ steal and then three-quarters court drive and feed to junior Natalie Achonwa for a lay-up with 1.8 seconds left lifted Notre Dame to a 61-59 victory against long-time nemesis Connecticut in the title game Monday night at Hartford, Conn. The 31-1 Irish extended their school-record winning streak to 26 games.

Notre Dame entered the contest with an all-time record of 0-6 against UConn in the Big East Championship finale, including defeats each of the past two seasons. It was the lone missing piece in 26th-year head coach McGraw’s Hall-of-Fame resume.

On the flip side, it was Notre Dame’s seventh victory in its last eight meetings with the superpower and No. 3-ranked Huskies, and this one was a “breeze” compared to the last two. On Jan. 5 in Storrs, Conn., the Huskies missed several last second shots that enabled Notre Dame to hold on for a 73-72 win. On March 4 at the Purcell Pavilion, the Irish came back several times from the dead and rallied to a 96-87 triple-overtime victory.

Although Notre Dame has won two straight Big East regular season titles — including an outright one this season with a 16-0 mark — capturing the postseason tournament in its final league game held special meaning.

“We just gave it away so many times in the last couple of minutes,” said an elated McGraw in an on-court interview with ESPN after the game. “To come back and finish like this, it’s unbelievable. ... Undefeated throughout the league in the last year we’re going to be here, I couldn’t be happier.”

For the first time in 20 years, Connecticut did not win either a regular season or postseason league title.

Early on, it appeared the Irish might run away with the contest despite foul problems plaguing Achonwa and an off shooting night by Diggins. Achonwa sat the final 10 minutes of the first half, yet Notre Dame built a 13-point lead (35-22) with junior guards Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd combining for 23 points.

UConn cut the halftime deficit to 35-26, but the Irish defense set the tone while limiting the Huskies (the nation’s top scoring team with an 83-point average) to their lowest first half production this year.

Achonwa played only 69 seconds early in the second half before picking up her third and fourth fouls. Connecticut kept chipping away before pulling ahead 45-43 on a jumper by freshman Breanna Stewart. McBride answered with two buckets, and then sophomore Markisha Wright, who acquitted herself well in place of Achonwa, scored off an offensive rebound with 8:01 left to put Notre Dame ahead, 49-47.

The Irish would not trail again and built their advantage to 59-53 with 2:55 left before three straight baskets by UConn tied it at the one-minute mark.

Possessing the ball, UConn called time out with 18.4 seconds left to set up a game-winning shot. The aggressive Huskies tried to force the action but Loyd trapped Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis in the corner, forcing an errant pass into the middle that Diggins anticipated. She intercepted the toss with about eight seconds left, raced through heavy traffic near midcourt while almost losing the ball and then found a hustling and wide open Achonwa underneath the basket for the uncontested lay-in with 1.8 seconds remaining.

McBride finished with a game high 23 points, while Loyd had 16. Diggins had 12 points and six assists, but she was especially valuable on defense with her aggressive pressure on the perimeter that included five steals — most notably the last one — some errant or tentative passes by UConn and zero three-point conversions from the Huskies.

“It’s not about me at all,” Diggins told ESPN when asked what this Big East Championship meant in her senior year. “It’s about my teammates. It’s about Jewell Loyd stepping up in the tournament, it’s about Kayla McBride putting the team on her back, it’s about Natalie Achonwa finishing and the bench just coming in and being ready baby.”

After 18 seasons, it was about Notre Dame finally hoisting the Big East Championship team hardware.

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