Notre Dame women beat UConn 72-59
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP)
Skylar Diggins and her Notre Dame teammates had three goals coming into the season.
One down, two to go after the Fighting Irish won their first outright Big East regular-season championship.
Natalie Novosel scored 21 points and Skylar Diggins added 20 to help No. 3 Notre Dame beat fourth-ranked Connecticut 72-59 on Monday night and clinch the crown.
''It's great,'' said Diggins, who was proudly wearing a Big East championship T-shirt in the postgame news conference. ''You know we come out here and play for coach. She deserves it. It's something we wanted to do for her.''
The Fighting Irish shared the regular season championship with UConn in 2001 before going on to win the national title under coach Muffet McGraw. Winning a Big East regular-season title was one of the few things missing from her impressive resume.
''It's definitely on our list of things we wanted to do,'' Novosel said. ''We wanted to do it for coach since she hadn't gotten one.''
The Irish (28-2, 15-1 Big East) had already clinched the top seed in the Big East tournament that begins Friday by virtue of the conference's tiebreaker. Notre Dame will now try and complete the Big East sweep by winning its first tournament title.
The Huskies fell to third in the conference, losing the tiebreaker to St. John's, which ended UConn's 99-game home winning streak on Feb. 18.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points and Stefanie Dolson added 18 for UConn (26-4, 13-3), which has now lost consecutive games at home for the first time in 19 years.
The Irish swept the season series from the Huskies and have won three straight overall against UConn, including last season's victory in the national semifinals. North Carolina was the last team to win three in a row from UConn, doing so from 2004-07.
''This team is really special,'' McGraw said. ''They have really high goals and a lot of pride. I'm happy for them and appreciate they are happy for me to win the first one. I love this group.''
Notre Dame had won just one of its previous 14 previous games in Connecticut, including going 0-7 at the XL Center.
Diggins led the way to this victory.
With the game tied at 51, Notre Dame went on an 11-2 run with Diggins scoring the first eight points. She hit two layups on the fast break then connected on a deep 3-pointer. Dolson's layup broke up the junior guard's spurt. A free throw by Diggins and a 3-pointer by Brittany Mallory made it 62-53 with 9:16 left.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was scoreless in the first half, had five quick points to get UConn within four. That's as close as the Huskies could get. Devereaux Peters followed up a free throw with a block on the other end that led to an easy lay-in by Diggins. Mallory hit another 3-pointer with just under five minutes left that made it 69-59.
A 3-pointer with 3:11 left by Novosel made it a 13-point game and capped the scoring for the night, handing UConn its first double-digit home loss since Dec. 5, 2005, against the Tar Heels.
''I think the story of the game was written in the stretch there,'' coach Geno Auriemma said. ''We were fighting an uphill battle the whole game. Every time we tried to make a run and get ourselves in a good place, we would commit a stupid turnover and every time we turned it over they scored off it. A couple plays there where they capitalized on a couple turnovers and scored. The fact we couldn't keep them off the offensive boards.''
This was the first time in six seasons that UConn didn't win or share the Big East regular season title.
''I think everyone in the country feels like they're in UConn's shadow,'' McGraw said.
The Huskies have won either the Big East regular season or tournament championship in the last 17 years.
''They put great pressure on us and we backed up and didn't fight back,'' Dolson said. ''We didn't play Connecticut basketball at all. When things weren't going right we took it one on one to the basket. It can't be like that. When things like that happen we have to fight back as a team.''
UConn jumped out to a 25-18 lead midway through the first half behind Dolson and Hayes. The two combined to score all the points for the Huskies to that point. Hayes had the final five, including a deep 3-pointer, to give UConn a seven-point lead. Notre Dame called a timeout and the Irish promptly went on a 14-3 run over the next 5 minutes. Novosel had the final seven points of the burst, including an acrobatic three-point play. Her two free throws with 3 1/2 minutes left in the half capped the spurt and gave Notre Dame a 34-28 advantage.
The Irish led 38-35 at the half. Novosel had 14 points at the break as the Irish converted 12 offensive rebounds into 15 second chance points. Hayes had 18 points, easily surpassing her previous career high against the Irish of 13.
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