Diggins’ triple-double lifts Irish to Final 4

Skylar Diggins knew she needed to do more than score to send Notre Dame back to the Final Four.

So she rebounded. And passed. And stole the ball.

It all added up to a game to remember — and now the Fighting Irish can keep their focus on avenging the one loss they’ll never forget.

Diggins had a triple-double and Notre Dame earned its second straight Final Four berth by beating Maryland 80-49 on Tuesday night in the Raleigh Regional final.

Diggins did it all for the top-seeded Irish (34-3). The Big East player of the year and AP All-America selection finished with 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and five steals.

"Our No. 1 point coming into this game was rebounding and boxing out," the 5-foot-9 Diggins said. "I thought I’d get my little self in there and see what I could do."

What she did was keep Notre Dame’s four-guard lineup humming and give the second-seeded Terrapins fits all night.

"She went off on us tonight," Maryland star Alyssa Thomas said, "and we really didn’t have an answer."

Natalie Achonwa added 18 points while Kayla McBride had 16 and Natalie Novosel finished with 14 for Notre Dame, which built a 46-27 rebounding advantage against low-post-oriented Maryland.

A huge run late in the first half essentially ended this one at halftime and propelled them to their fourth Final Four trip and second in a row.

All four No. 1 seeds are headed to Denver — the first time that’s happened since 1989 — so once the Irish arrive in the Rockies, maybe they’ll find a close game there for a change. Only one of Notre Dame’s four tournament wins was closer than 31 points.

A loss in last year’s national championship game provided a season’s worth of focus and motivation for the Irish, who moved two victories away from the title that eluded them when Texas A&M rallied past them.

But before they can think about another title game, a familiar foe awaits: Connecticut, which beat Notre Dame 63-54 earlier this month in the Big East title game, though the Irish did win both regular-season meetings.

"This game is great momentum for us going into it, and our incentive is getting back to the championship," Diggins said. "That’s been our goal, which we’ve wanted to do all year. … There’s nothing, really, that you could tell us about UConn that we didn’t already know."

Thomas scored 17 points and Tianna Hawkins and Alicia DeVaughn added 10 apiece for Maryland (31-5). After rallying from 18 points to beat reigning national champion Texas A&M two days earlier in the semifinal, the Terps finally slipped into a deficit they couldn’t escape.

Notre Dame raced out to a 19-point lead in the first half and wasted no time after halftime pushing it into the 20s and beyond. Maryland simply couldn’t recover, and was denied its fourth Final Four trip and first since its national title in 2006.

"Tonight was Notre Dame’s night," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I thought they were really spectacular. Really did a tremendous job on all ends of the floor. Beat us at our rebounding game, just destroyed us on the glass. … Our energy and effort, I felt, was spent in the game before."

The location and scenario made for a disturbing parallel for Maryland’s seniors who were freshmen in 2009 when they won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title and breezed to the Raleigh Regional semifinal, only to come up short against a determined Big East opponent. Back then, it was Louisville.

This time, the Irish broke things open midway through the first half, holding the Terps without a field goal for roughly 5½ minutes during a 26-7 run that pushed their lead well into double figures. Diggins scored seven points during the run while Achonwa had eight, including a pretty layup off a pick-and-roll that put Notre Dame up 38-19 with 2:15 before the break.

That burst — and the entire game, really — was marked by the strong guard play usually expected from Notre Dame, along with some impressive work underneath. The Irish made all the hustle plays and got to nearly every significant loose ball and rebound.

"We read a lot about Maryland’s rebounding and the size factor and I thought we did just a fantastic job in the half-court, man-to-man, did a great job on the boards, scored any way we wanted to — we scored inside and out," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I couldn’t be prouder of this team, to handle the expectations all year long of being a No. 1 seed and the target on our backs, and to come through and make it back to the Final Four."