Talk about saving the best for last.
All-American guard Skylar Diggins will play her final game in Purcell Pavilion for head coach Muffet McGraw.
No. 2 Notre Dame hosts No. 3 Connecticut on Monday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m.) in the regular season finale prior to the Big East Tournament that begins Sunday, March 10 in Hartford, Conn.
The 27-1 Irish have already clinched at least a tie for the Big East crown with a 15-0 mark, while 27-2 (14-1 in Big East) Connecticut will attempt to forge a tie for the regular season title with a victory. What’s at stake is the No. 1 seed for the Big East Tournament from March 8-12, with the Irish and Huskies both having double byes.
Regardless of the outcome, a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament is imminent for both, and the popular projection is the two powers will meet four times for a third straight season.
• Two years ago, Connecticut swept the regular season series against Notre Dame and also topped them in the Big East Tournament. But in the NCAA Final Four, the Fighting Irish pulled off a 72-63 upset.
• Last season, Notre Dame vanquished the Huskies by seven and 13 points during the regular season for a share of the Big East title, but lost 63-54 at the Big East Tournament in Hartford to UConn. However, once again in the Final Four, Notre Dame prevailed against the Huskies in overtime, 83-75.
• Round 1 this season saw the No. 5 Irish upset No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 5 in Storrs, Conn., 73-72. Senior All-American Skylar Diggins hit four clutch field goals (two from three-point range) down the stretch to prevent the Huskies from pulling away and sank the go-ahead free throws with 49.4 seconds left.
“You kind of feel like, ‘Enough already. Can we play somebody else?’ ” joked McGraw of the constant showdowns against Connecticut late in the season. “It is a little bit challenging because you’re in the same league with them and you really want to play other teams in the NCAA Tournament.”
Each of Notre Dame’s previous two Big East titles in 2001 and 2012 were shared with Connecticut, so an outright regular season championship would be a first. That is one of the reasons why “Senior Night” was held last Tuesday against Syracuse — so that all concentration versus UConn can be on the game. The Irish fell behind the Orange 22-7 before rallying to victory.
Notre Dame received great news when the medical staff cleared freshman guard Jewell Loyd (11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game) to play after showing concussive symptoms following the Syracuse game. Loyd was held out of action in Saturday’s 92-57 win at Providence but practiced with the team on Sunday afternoon, per McGraw.
Diggins (16.9 points per game) and junior Kayla McBride (14.9) have been scorching the nets the past two games while combining for 101 points, while junior center Natalie Achonwa (13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game) easily paces the Big East with 15 double-doubles. It will be Diggins' final game in Purcell Pavilion.
Junior forward Ariel Braker, senior Kaila Turner and sophomore wing Madison Cable have all seen starting time this season, with sophomore Markisha Wright filling in at the post. Freshman guard Michaela Mabrey’s 11 points were a huge contribution in the earlier win at Connecticut.
Connecticut’s two losses were to No. 1 Baylor (76-70) on Feb. 18 and the one-pointer to the Irish. Notre Dame’s lone defeat was to Baylor Dec. 5 (73-61), and its 22-game winning streak since then is one short of tying the school record held by the 2001 national champs.
This past Saturday, the Huskies recorded an impressive 85-51 victory versus South Florida, a team the Irish had to defeat in overtime back in January. Sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored a career-high 32 points and junior center Stefanie Dolson added 25 points and 10 rebounds for the Huskies. Mosqueda-Lewis ranks second in the Big East in scoring (17.6 ppg.) and tops in the nation in three-point percentage (.503). Dolson leads the nation in field goal percentage (.605), and is second on the team in scoring (14.4 ppg.), as well as tied for the team lead in rebounding (6.6 rpg.).
“They’re both playing better right now than they were at that point,” said McGraw of the January meeting. “Both are playing very consistently.”
In addition to the 6-5 Dolson and 6-foot Mosqueda-Lewis, the front line features 6-4 Breanna Stewart, the high school player of the year last season. In the earlier meeting with Notre Dame, she had 10 points (all in the second half) six blocks and nine rebounds. The backcourt also is productive with senior Kelly Faris, Brianna Banks, Bria Hartley and fifth-year senior point guard Caroline Doty.
Head coach Geno Auriemma is in his 28th season at Connecticut with seven national titles, four other Final Fours, and an 831-131 (.864) career record, including a 29-9 (.763) mark against Notre Dame. However, Notre Dame has won five of the last six.