Skylar Diggins cut the final strand off the net and twirled it around. Finally, Notre Dame had its first Big East tournament championship.
Six previous times the Irish had played Connecticut in the tournament title game and had fallen in each one, including the previous two. Now in its final Big East title game, the Irish were champions.
”It’s special because it’s the last one,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. ”We leave here champions and go home undefeated. To win it here makes it even better.”
Natalie Achonwa’s layup with 1.8 seconds left lifted No. 2 Notre Dame to a 61-59 victory over third-ranked UConn on Tuesday night.
Diggins stole an errant pass from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with 8 seconds left, and after dribbling through a few defenders, found Achonwa for the uncontested lay-in.
Kelly Faris then heaved a desperation attempt from 65 feet that fell harmlessly off the backboard, setting off a wild celebration for the Irish, who have won 26 straight games.
”I’ve had a lot of big wins in my years here – wins against UConn to go to national championship games, it definitely is up there,” Diggins said. ”It means a lot not only to me, means a lot to coach and our program.”
The Fighting Irish players, wearing championship hats and T-shirts, set up a dance line to celebrate and did an Irish jig in front of the school band.
”It’s great for our program,” Diggins said. ”I’m excited for the team going into the NCAA tournament. This is our coming of age.”
Now with the Big East title, a national championship is the only thing missing from Diggins’ impressive resume.
The Irish (31-1) weren’t going to be denied in their final chance to win that elusive Big East conference championship. Their last tournament title came back in 1994 when they ruled the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, now the Horizon League. The win complimented their 16-0 regular season record in the conference this season.
Earlier in the day, Notre Dame announced it would be joining the ACC starting next season – a year earlier than expected.
Kayla McBride, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, scored 23 points to lead the Irish. Jewell Loyd finished with 16 and Diggins had 12.
Stefanie Dolson had 18 points and 14 rebounds, while Breanna Stewart had 16 points for UConn (29-4), which had won the last five Big East tournament titles but fell to Notre Dame for the third time this season.
The Huskies trailed 59-53 with 2:55 left before tying it at 59.
”At this point how I played isn’t really in my mind,” Dolson said. ”We fought in the second half to tie it up … at the end of the day we didn’t win.”
They had a chance to take the lead but Faris missed a layup. She got her own rebound and after calling a timeout, the Huskies had a chance before Mosqueda-Lewis got caught in the corner and threw the ball away to Diggins, setting up the finish.
The Irish have been on top in the series recently with seven victories in the last eight meetings. No team has ever dominated the Huskies like that since UConn won its first national championship in 1995.
The only UConn victory came in the conference title game last season, but the Huskies couldn’t pull off a third straight win over Notre Dame in the tournament championship.
The loss ended a run of 19 straight seasons that Connecticut had won either the regular season or postseason conference title.
These two teams could potentially meet for a fourth time in the NCAA tournament. It would be the third straight season that they would meet four times in one year.
”History has shown that what happens during the regular season doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen in the postseason,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ”There’s a lot of basketball to be played before a chance of a Connecticut-Notre Dame game. We’re going to get together on Saturday and start preparing for round one of the NCAA tournament. That’s as far as we’re looking towards right now.”
The teams met eight days earlier and the Irish came away with a triple-overtime victory that clinched them their second straight conference regular-season title.
This one – while it didn’t go three overtimes – was thrilling nonetheless; a fitting finale for a conference that has been arguably the best in women’s basketball over the past decade. This was the last game under its current configuration as the basketball schools will break away from the football schools next season. That new basketball conference will keep the Big East name.
”It was a great partnership that produced some memorable moments in a lot of sports. We are very sorry to see the Big East that we knew and grew up in not exist anymore,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said before the game.
Notre Dame appeared to put this one away early.
McBride keyed Notre Dame on a 20-4 run for a 20-8 lead. She had nine points during the burst, barely moving the net on some of her jumpers. The Huskies tried to rally in front of a friendly crowd of 9,000 who were clearly backing UConn despite the team wearing its blue road uniforms.
UConn pulled to 24-22 on a putback by Dolson with 4:52 left in the half. Then it was Loyd’s time to shine. The conference’s freshman of the year scored seven points during an 11-0 run as the Irish opened up a 35-22 advantage. They led 35-26 at the half.
Notre Dame expanded its lead to 39-28 before UConn finally got going. Stewart scored the final four points of an 11-0 run to tie it midway through the second half. The teams traded baskets over the next 6 minutes with neither able to build any sort of lead.
Diggins, the two-time reigning Big East player of the year, finally gave Notre Dame a four-point lead with a floater in the lane with 5:22 left to set up the frantic finish.
Auriemma had inserted Stewart into the lineup for the first time since the middle of December. Stewart had averaged just 7.5 points against the Irish this season in the two previous meetings, making just six of her 24 shots.
She had played very well in the first two games of the Big East tournament, and continued it against the Irish.
UConn didn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first time since the 2002 NCAA championship game.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg