Feb. 27, 2012
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut's first two-game losing streak at home in 19 years had coach Geno Auriemma questioning his team's toughness and searching for answers going into the postseason.
"Our team has no fight," Auriemma said. "We're the kind of fighters that throw punches and if you keep backing up, we'll keep punching you. But if you punch us back, we're going to run and hide."
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points, and Stefanie Dolson added 18 for No. 4 UConn in a 72-59 loss to third-ranked Notre Dame on Monday night that gave the Fighting Irish their first outright BIG EAST regular-season title.
The Huskies showed a bit of grit in the first meeting between the teams, an overtime loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 9. The rematch turned out to be less competitive in the end, and that concerned the Hall of Fame coach.
"This team has not improved since the last time we played Notre Dame," Auriemma said. "I would have thought we would have made great strides and we have not. It's one of the few years that I can remember that has been the case."
With the game tied at 51, Notre Dame went on an 11-2 run with Skylar Diggins scoring the first eight points. She hit two layups on the fast break then connected on a deep 3-pointer. Dolson's layup broke up the junior guard's spurt. A free throw by Diggins and a 3-pointer by Brittany Mallory made it 62-53 with 9:16 left.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was scoreless in the first half, had five quick points to get UConn within four. That's as close as the Huskies could get. Devereaux Peters followed up a free throw with a block on the other end that led to an easy lay-in by Diggins. Mallory hit another 3-pointer with just under five minutes left that made it 69-59.
A 3-pointer with 3:11 left by Natalie Novosel made it a 13-point game and Auriemma called timeout. Unhappy with the play of his starters, he subbed them all out, putting in the reserves. They didn't score, and UConn (26-4, 13-3 BIG EAST) suffered its first double-digit home loss since Dec. 5, 2005, against North Carolina.
"They put great pressure on us, and we backed up and didn't fight back," Dolson said. "We didn't play Connecticut basketball at all. When things weren't going right, we took it one on one to the basket. It can't be like that. When things like that happen, we have to fight back as a team."
The Irish (28-2, 15-1) had already clinched the top seed in the BIG EAST tournament that begins Friday by virtue of the conference's tiebreaker. The Huskies fell to the third seed in the conference tournament, losing the tiebreaker to St. John's, which ended UConn's 99-game home winning streak on Feb. 18.
The last time UConn lost two straight at home was February 1993.
"We lost the BIG EAST championship when we lost to St. John's," Auriemma said. "You don't come to Connecticut to tie Notre Dame for the BIG EAST championship. They don't throw parades for ties here."
Novosel scored 21 points and Diggins added 20 to lead the Irish, who shared the regular season championship with UConn in 2001 before going on to win the national title under coach Muffet McGraw.
Winning the BIG EAST regular season title outright plugged one of the few holes in McGraw's impressive resume.
"This was on our list of things to do. We wanted to do this for coach," Novosel said.
The Irish hardly celebrated their big win on the court. Beating UConn isn't as big a deal to them at this point. Notre Dame swept the season series from the Huskies and has won three straight overall against UConn, including last season's victory in the national semifinals. North Carolina was the last team to win three in a row from UConn, doing so from 2004-07.
This was the first time in six seasons that UConn didn't win or share the BIG EAST regular season title. The Huskies have won either the BIG EAST regular season or tournament championship in the last 17 years.
UConn jumped out to a 25-18 lead midway through the first half behind Dolson and Hayes. The two combined to score all the points for the Huskies to that point. Hayes had the final five, including a deep 3-pointer, to give UConn a seven-point lead. Notre Dame called a timeout, and the Irish promptly went on a 14-3 run over the next 5 minutes. Novosel had the final seven points of the burst, including an acrobatic three-point play. Her two free throws with 3 1/2 minutes left in the half capped the spurt and gave Notre Dame a 34-28 advantage.
The Irish led 38-35 at the half. Novosel had 14 points at the break as the Irish converted 12 offensive rebounds into 15 second chance points. Hayes had 18 points, easily surpassing her previous career high against the Irish of 13.