Irish need to reload after 2 runner-up finishes
Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride can use the ''unfinished business'' mantra again next season.
But they are going to need some help after Notre Dame lost the national championship for the second straight season. The Fighting Irish are losing seniors Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory, a group that won 117 games, including three against perennial power UConn this season.
The trio that helped shake up the Big East came up short Tuesday night against Baylor and its superstar center, Brittney Griner, who wrecked Notre Dame's upset hopes by pouring in 26 points, snaring 13 rebounds and collecting five blocks while affecting just about every other shot the Irish took.
A year ago, the Irish (35-4) let a late lead slip away in a six-point loss to Texas A&M. This time, they were within 42-39 early in the second half before Griner took over and the Lady Bears raced to an 80-61 blowout that capped the first 40-0 season in NCAA history.
The senior starters didn't go out the way they wanted.
Peters played just 15 minutes because of foul trouble, extinguishing a plan to contain Griner by engaging her in the high post and keeping her away from the basket. The Lady Bears outscored the Irish 40-22 in the paint, and that was the difference.
Novosel, their leading scorer, missed all 11 of her shots, and Mallory, the shooting star in Notre Dame's semifinal win over Connecticut, scored just three points.
All that shouldn't sully all they've done for the Irish, insisted Diggins, a junior who plans to delay her WNBA career just like Griner and return for her senior year.
''This is a great senior class,'' Diggins said. ''Watching their whole careers, even on the sidelines, just amazing what they've been able to do and bring this program back to an elite program. And being able to lead this team to back-to-back national championship games is amazing. And I hate that it ends on a game like this because you fail to see everything they did to get to this point.''
This group beat UConn four times in their last five meetings and handed Geno Auriemma's Huskies their only two losses in their last 22 NCAA tournament games. They also beat them at the Final Four last year.
Diggins said she will take the lessons learned from Tuesday night and try to live up to the outgoing senior class's legacy in 2012-13.
''Got to do a better job being a leader,'' Diggins said. ''I thought I didn't have good leadership out there tonight as far as keeping our fire. But I'll do better, I promise.''
Peters, a projected pick in the WNBA draft later this month, picked up her fourth foul early in the second half against Baylor. That left Natalie Achonwa, a sophomore, and Markisha Wright, a freshman, sharing the tough task of going up against Griner. Since they weren't shooting threats the way Peters is, the Irish couldn't run the backdoor cuts that worked so well in the first half.
''Ace is really talented,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Achonwa, ''and I think she's got a great future. I think the way she played against Maryland (in the regional finals) was a great start for her to move into next year.
''And Markisha Wright, I like her. I wish I would have played her more throughout the year. Because she's strong and she's a really good low block player, which we don't really have. So, I think the two of them will be really good next year.''
Freshmen Whitney Holloway and Madison Cable also return next year along with junior Kaila Turner and sophomore Ariel Braker.
Unlike Baylor, which returns most of its team, the path back to the Final Four and a third straight shot at a title will be much more arduous for the Irish.
Still, McGraw said she thinks the returning players will eventually be able to use this loss to drive themselves.
''I think it will be toughest for the seniors not having that opportunity to come back,'' McGraw said. ''They're the ones that carried it so hard last time, also. We've got a lot of new faces now with Kayla and Skylar and Ace, really kind of the three main players returning. So, I think for them it will be good motivation.
''And for the freshmen, we've got to improve a lot to get ready for next year, and I think them seeing what it's like even from the bench will help them. But I think we'll be able to process that. I think it will take some time, but eventually we'll remember what a great season this was.''
The Irish went 15-3 against ranked teams this season but against Griner, they just weren't themselves.
After averaging 79.3 points, second-best in the nation, they scored just 61. After allowing just 52.2 points a game, they gave up 80. And they were outrebounded by 19, the third-largest margin in championship history.
McGraw told her players the letdown can't put a damper on a great two-year run. The seniors who did so much but came up short left the Pepsi Center with their heads held high.
''We've accomplished so much that you can't knock all that we've done throughout these past two years over one loss,'' Peters said.
''It was a tough loss,'' Mallory said, ''but it was a great year.''