No. 12 Oklahoma 77, No. 7 Notre Dame 72
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale is rarely at a loss for words, yet even she struggled to find the right ones to describe her team's thrilling overtime victory over Notre Dame.
Nyeshia Stevenson hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 4.4 seconds left in overtime and third-seeded Oklahoma knocked off second-seeded Notre Dame 77-72 on Sunday night to reach the regional finals for the second year in a row and the third time in school history.
``I don't get speechless very often,'' Coale said. ``But I can't think of anything better to say than I'm just really, really proud of these kids.''
Stevenson had 21 points and Abi Olajuwon added 20 points and 14 rebounds for the Sooners (26-10), who lost to Notre Dame in overtime in the second round in 2008.
Oklahoma muffed a chance to win at the end of regulation, as Danielle Robinson slipped 30 feet from the basket. But in OT, Stevenson calmly drilled a 3 from the corner that proved to be the winner.
Notre Dame then chucked a long baseball pass, but Stevenson snagged it and knocked down two free throws to seal the win - Oklahoma's fourth in four OT tries this season. The Sooners will face Kentucky in the regional final on Tuesday night. The Wildcats knocked off No. 1 Nebraska 76-67.
Melissa Lechlitner had 22 points and Lindsay Schrader had 19 to lead Notre Dame (29-6), which lost its fourth straight regional semifinal dating back to 2001.
Notre Dame was outrebounded 44-33, but it was their inability to stop Stevenson from getting open 3s that cost them.
Stevenson, a 32.1 percent 3-point shooter coming into the game, was 5-of-8 from 3-point range. She had just six points in that OT loss to the Irish two years ago, but was determined not to let her career end with another loss to the Fighting Irish.
``That was someone we were really, really trying to guard and just lost her for a second on a number of occasions,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. ``That was the difference.''
This was expected to be one of the closest matchups of all the regional semifinal games, and it certainly lived up to the hype.
For much of the second half, the Sooners seemed poised to pull away and even led by six with 2:46 left. But the Fighting Irish rallied, forcing overtime with a pair of tough shots.
Lechlitner converted a tough three-point play through traffic to pull Notre Dame within 64-63, hitting the floor hard before getting up to bury a crucial free throw. Freshman Skylar Diggins - who struggled with her shot all night - then threw up a 3 that bounced around the rim before falling in, tying it at 66-all with 32 seconds left in regulation.
``We came down and had a couple of really good offensive plays, and Skylar hit that big 3,'' Schrader said. ``We just kind of dug down.''
Oklahoma was back in the regional semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons. What's been so remarkable about this run, though, is that the Sooners have done it without the departed Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley, and guard Whitney Hand - the emotional heartbeat of their team.
Hand, the Big 12's Freshman of the Year in 2009, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee on Nov. 27, just a day before they played Notre Dame the first time.
Oklahoma lost that one, 81-71, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Playing before a decidedly pro-Sooners crowd in nearby Kansas City, they exacted payback when it matter most.
``Overtime battles, we've won throughout the year. We weren't nervous or anything,'' Stevenson said.
Jasmine Hartman drilled a late 3 from the wing - Oklahoma's fourth in six tries to that point - to help put the Sooners ahead 36-32 at the break. Notre Dame tied it up at 38-all early in the second half. But Stevenson and Hartman drilled back-to-back 3s, and Olajuwon's short jumper gave Oklahoma a 46-38 lead with 14:14 left.
The Irish responded, reeling off a 12-3 run to jump back ahead 50-49. Robinson, who finished with 15 points, answered with a pair of tough layups, converting a 3-point play on one of them, to put the Sooners back on top 56-50 with just under eight minutes left.
Sunday loss's was a bitter defeat for an Irish team lost just six games all year - and three of them came against Connecticut.
They rolled to their first two tournament wins over Cleveland State and Vermont by an average of 23 points, but they fought an uphill battle all night against the determined Sooners.
Diggins, who had 31 points against the Catamounts, shot just 4-of-14 from the floor, though she had six steals.
``I thought that Skylar got a lot of lay-ups in the first half that didn't go in for her, and I think that probably frustrated her,'' McGraw said. ``We probably didn't get her the ball enough to really let her do what she can do.''