Skylar Diggins scored 24 points and second-seeded Notre Dame made up for 28 years of beatings at the hands of Tennessee, upsetting the top-seeded Lady Vols 73-59 Monday night to earn a spot in the Final Four.
”We went into the locker room after the game and the first thing the team said was, ”1 and 20! 1 and 20!” coach Muffet McGraw said with a laugh.
The Fighting Irish (30-7) came in 0-20 all-time against the Lady Vols. But the operative number on this night was 3-0 – Notre Dame’s record in regional championship games. The Irish are headed to the Final Four for the first time since 2001, when they won the national championship.
”This is what you work for,” said Diggins, a first-team All-Big East performer. ”I said all day, this team has so much camaraderie. It’s been like that all year. We just rallied around each other.”
Natalie Novosel added 17 points and Becca Bruszewski – who didn’t practice Sunday and was listed as questionable to even play with a knee injury – had 13 for the Fighting Irish. Brittany Mallory chipped in with 10 points.
”It’s a surreal feeling, knowing that could have been my last game,” said Bruszewski, who got a new knee brace earlier on Monday. ”But this team just came out ready to go. This is an unreal feeling.”
Notre Dame advanced to the play the winner of Tuesday’s game between top-ranked Connecticut (35-1) and second-seeded Duke (32-3).
McGraw said she had a clear rooting interest in that game.
”We’re definitely cheering for the Big East,” she said, referring to conference and national power Connecticut. ”We’d like to have two Final Four teams from the Big East.”
It went without saying that she might want to play the Huskies because – much like Tennessee – the Fighting Irish owe them. Connecticut won all three meetings with Notre Dame this season.
Taber Spani and Shekinna Stricklen had 13 points for the Lady Vols (34-3). Glory Johnson added 12.
”Obviously I’m very upset, I’m very disappointed in our basketball team,” coach Pat Summitt said after being stuck with loss number 199 of her career against 1,071 wins. ”I don’t think we came here with the focus. Don’t ask me why. I’m kind of at a loss for words. We’ve got a ways to go, obviously. We were exposed today.”
Stricklen choked up trying to fight back the disappointment.
”We just didn’t show up. We didn’t play great defense. … No defense,” she said. ”We didn’t have leaders step up today.”
It was a watershed win after years of losing – sometimes close, usually not so close – to mighty Tennessee. The day before the game, McGraw and her players were clearly upset to be reminded about their long drought against the Lady Vols.
”Thanks for reminding us,” she beamed after the game.
Trouble seemed to be brewing for the Lady Vols all week. The players had a team meeting after a narrow win in the second round. Then Summitt had to reach back for a fiery halftime speech to inspire the team to overcome Ohio State in the regional semifinals.
Down five at the half, Tennessee picked up two quick baskets by Stricklen only to have the Fighting Irish score on five of their next six possessions. Diggins was the culprit almost every time, hitting two 3s and a long jumper and assisting on Bruszewski’s short shot and also on Novosel’s spinning reverse layup.
”She was terrific, without any doubt the best guard on the floor,” Summitt said of Diggins. ”She energizes that team. She was the real force.”
Novosel’s hoop swelled the lead to 41-32 – and suddenly that sea of orange filling up much of the University of Dayton Arena began to get nervous.
Rough play dominated under the basket, with bodies flying everywhere. During one physical exchange, Tennessee’s Kelley Cain was fouled by Bruszewski, with Cain called for a technical for protesting being brought down.
That seemed to fire up the Fighting Irish. After Novosel hit both technical shots, and Cain hit only one of her free throws, the Irish pulled away. First Diggins drilled a high, arching 3 from the right wing. After a Tennessee miss, the Lady Vols pressed fullcourt and Notre Dame threw a long inbounds pass to Novosel, who drove the length of the court and fed Devereaux Peters for a bucket.
Mallory then picked up a steal and Peters slipped behind the Tennessee defense to score again, muscling in a shot off an alley-oop pass from Diggins – for a 60-48 lead.
The Irish didn’t seem to mind waiting out the final 4 minutes to start the celebration. After all, they’d waited so long for the chance to finally have the upper hand over the Lady Vols.
”We didn’t feel like underdogs,” Novosel said. ”We went in expecting to win.”