UConn's quest for 3rd title in row ends
Shot for shot, play for play, Skylar Diggins matched Maya Moore when it mattered most and Notre Dame will now play for a national championship behind their fearless young leader.
The sensational sophomore guard scored 28 points and hot-shooting Notre Dame upset UConn 72-63 on Sunday night, ending the brilliant career of Moore and the Huskies' quest for a third straight national championship.
''I thought Skylar was just amazing, simply amazing today,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
And she was.
Ten years after their last title, the Irish will be playing for another one Tuesday night against Texas A&M, which beat Stanford 63-62 in the first semifinal. The Aggies scored with 3 seconds left in a back-and-forth game to set up the improbable championship without a top seed for only the second time ever and the first since 1994.
Connecticut and Stanford had each been to the Final Four the last four seasons and were expected to meet for the title on Tuesday night in a rematch of last year's title game.
While UConn won that meeting, the Cardinal ended UConn's record 90-game winning streak on Dec. 30. Everyone thought the rematch would come here in Indianapolis on basketball's biggest stage.
''This is what women's basketball needs,'' Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. ''It needs regional finals, national semifinal and national final games like this to sometimes wake up America.''
Notre Dame was 0-3 against its Big East rival this season, but the Irish had all the answers this time for the Huskies, who lost for just the second time in three seasons. The Irish already had beaten Tennessee in the NCAA tournament, ending a 20-game skid against the Volunteers.
Now the Irish (31-7) have knocked out the two-time defending champions.
Moore finished with 36 points, including 12 straight as she tried to rally the Huskies from a 12-point deficit in the final 6 minutes, but it wasn't enough for UConn (36-2).
''I don't know that you could wish for somebody better to spend four years with,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of Moore. ''I don't think she needs to hang her head one bit.''
Her career ended the same way it started - with a loss in the national semifinals. She finished as the NCAA's fourth all-time leading scorer, putting up 3,036 points.
''I'm going to have to choose to remember the great thing and how fortunate I was to be a part of so many record-breaking seasons,'' Moore said. ''It's just tough because it's the current taste in my mouth now. I'll just have to deal with it.''
The four-time All-American and AP player of the year was overshadowed by Diggins, the South Bend native who felt right at home in Conseco Fieldhouse, where she led her high school to three straight championships.
''It's pretty high on my list,'' Diggins said of her performance. ''It's not the top.''
Not yet, anyway. Calmly directing her offense and fearlessly driving into the lane to create chances for herself and her teammates, Diggins now has a chance to add a NCAA championship to that list.
''She ran the team, she scored, she made good passes, good decisions,'' McGraw said of Diggins. ''She's an amazing talent and there's probably nothing she can't do when she puts her mind to it.''
Trailing 34-26 early in the second half, Diggins' three-point play started a 15-4 run by the Irish. Devereaux Peters' added her own three-point play that gave Notre Dame a 38-37 advantage - its first lead since midway through the first half.
Diggins capped the burst with another three-point play that made it 41-38 with 13:17 left and brought the pro-Irish crowd to its feet and left Auriemma's team reeling.
The Irish extended their lead to 47-40 a few minutes later before UConn cut the deficit to four on Bria Hartley's 3-pointer.
Brittany Mallory and Natalie Novosel hit consecutive 3-pointers to make it a 12-point game with just over 7 minutes left. Moore did her best to try to rally her young team, but the Huskies fell short.
Moore started her flurry with a three-point play and then a hit a deep 3-pointer. After Novosel hit a layup Moore hit another 3-pointer that made it 63-60 with 2:26 left. That's as close as the Huskies would get as Diggins and the Irish were too much for them down the stretch.
''We had to be poised, I mean, we had to try to make Maya take tough shots, and I think she did,'' Diggins said. ''And at the end we said, 'We have to stay poised on defense and we have to execute on offense.' We showed a lot more poise than we did in the first three games against Connecticut.''
As the clock ran out, Diggins and the Notre Dame players rushed the floor and danced, knowing they had pulled off the monumental victory.
''We knew what we wanted to do, and we knew we were going to accomplish this this year,'' Mallory said. ''It's an unbelievable feeling that we are going to be playing for a national championship on Tuesday night.''
Notre Dame was making its first trip to the Final Four since winning a national title in 2001 after knocking out UConn in the semifinals that year. The Irish faced a 16-point first half deficit in that game but rallied to the victory as well.
A half-dozen members of that team were among the 30 former Irish players at the game Sunday night. After the victory, McGraw went into the stands and hugged her former players.
''The team sent a card to the hotel with each player and everybody associated with the team had a quote or something to say to the girls,'' McGraw said. ''I think carrying on that tradition was good for them.''
McGraw had said leading up to the game that her team would try and draw inspiration from Texas A&M, which lost three games to Baylor in the regular season before beating the Lady Bears in the regional final.
''In some ways we're mirror images, we have great guard play and outstanding defenses and I thought throughout the tournament as I watched them, they'd be a really, really tough team to play,'' McGraw said. ''Be careful what you wish for.''
Now she'll meet them in an improbable championship matchup.
In it's three losses to the Huskies, the Irish shot just 35 percent. On Sunday night they made 52 percent from the field, snapping a streak of 262 consecutive games that the Huskies hadn't allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent.
''I thought they were much more the aggressive team in taking the ball to the basket,'' Auriemma said. ''They've been a great team all year. It's their turn.''