March 12, 2013
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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -
Geno Auriemma was at a loss. For the third time this season his Connecticut Huskies came up short against Notre Dame.
This time it cost the Huskies the Big East tournament championship.
"What can I say, I feel really bad for these guys," he said. "They played an amazing second half and we put ourselves in a big hole in the first half. They deserved to win because they made one more play at the end than we did."
Natalie Achonwa's layup with 1.8 seconds left lifted No. 2 Notre Dame to a 61-59 victory over third-ranked UConn on Tuesday night.
Notre Dame has had the Huskies' number lately. The Irish have dominated the series recently with seven victories in the last eight meetings. No team has ever dominated the Huskies like that since UConn won its first national championship in 1995.
The only UConn victory came in the conference title game last season, but the Huskies couldn't pull off a third straight win over Notre Dame in the tournament championship.
The loss ended a run of 19 straight seasons that Connecticut had won either the regular season or postseason conference title.
Now the Huskies will turn their focus on winning an eighth national championship.
"At this point this program is all about how you respond and that's what coach teaches us how to do," said senior Kelly Faris. We haven't responded the way we need to, the way the program is used to. That's why we are sitting where we're at right now. This is our last chance right now to respond in the right way. This is our last opportunity to step up and make something of it."
What didn't help the Huskies was their inability to hit anything from behind the 3-point line. They were 0-for-5, marking the first time since the 2002 NCAA championship game that they didn't hit a 3-pointer - a span of 403 games.
"For us to go 0-for, I never think we're going to do that," Auriemma said. "I think we'll make our share and we always do."
Even without the 3-pointers falling UConn had a chance to win it. The Huskies had the ball with the game tied and 20 seconds left. That's when things fell apart.
Diggins stole an errant pass from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with 8 seconds left, and after dribbling through a few defenders, found Achonwa for the uncontested lay-in.
Faris then heaved a desperation attempt from 65 feet that fell harmlessly off the backboard, setting off a wild celebration for the Irish, who have won 26 straight games.
"I've had a lot of big wins in my years here - wins against UConn to go to national championship games, it definitely is up there," Diggins said. "It means a lot not only to me, means a lot to coach and our program."
Now with the Big East title, a national championship is the only thing missing from Diggins' impressive resume.
The Irish (31-1) weren't going to be denied in their final chance to win an elusive Big East championship. Earlier in the day, Notre Dame announced it would be joining the ACC starting next season - a year earlier than expected.
Kayla McBride, named the tournament's most outstanding player, scored 23 points to lead the Irish. Jewell Loyd finished with 16 and Diggins had 12.
Stefanie Dolson had 18 points and 14 rebounds, while Breanna Stewart had 16 points for UConn (29-4), which had won the last five Big East tournament titles but fell to Notre Dame for the third time this season.
The Huskies trailed 59-53 with 2:55 left before tying it at 59.
"At this point how I played isn't really in my mind," Dolson said. "We fought in the second half to tie it up ... at the end of the day we didn't win."
They had a chance to take the lead but Faris missed a layup. She got her own rebound and after calling a timeout, the Huskies had a chance before Mosqueda-Lewis got caught in the corner and threw the ball away to Diggins, setting up the finish.
They met eight days earlier and the Irish came away with a triple-overtime victory that clinched them their second straight conference regular-season title.
This one - while it didn't go three overtimes - was thrilling nonetheless. A fitting finale for a conference that has been arguably the best in women's basketball over the past decade. This was the last game under its current configuration as the basketball schools will break away from the football schools next season. That new basketball conference will keep the Big East name.
Notre Dame appeared to put this game away early. McBride keyed Notre Dame on a 20-4 run for a 20-8 lead. She had nine points during the burst, barely moving the net on some of her jumpers. The Huskies tried to rally in front of a friendly crowd of 9,000 who were clearly backing UConn despite the team wearing its blue road uniforms.
UConn pulled to 24-22 on a putback by Dolson with 4:52 left in the half. Then it was Loyd's time to shine. The conference's freshman of the year scored seven points during an 11-0 run as the Irish opened up a 35-22 advantage. They led 35-26 at the half.
Notre Dame expanded its lead to 39-28 before UConn finally got going. Stewart scored the final four points of an 11-0 run to tie it midway through the second half. The teams traded baskets over the next 6 minutes with neither able to build any sort of lead.
Diggins, the two-time reigning Big East player of the year, finally gave Notre Dame a four-point lead with a floater in the lane with 5:22 left to set up the frantic finish.
Auriemma had inserted Stewart into the lineup for the first time since the middle of December. Stewart had averaged just 7.5 points against the Irish this season in the two previous meetings, making just six of her 24 shots.
She had played very well in the first two games of the Big East tournament, and continued it against the Irish.