Irish-Huskies rivalry bears repeating
STORRS, Conn. -- The shame of it is, no television series is more deserving of renewal than the rivalry between Notre Dame and Connecticut on the basketball court. The more times the teams play each other, the better the advertisement for the sport.
But if Saturday's game marked one of the final installments of the college game's best ongoing drama, at least for some time, it did more than trade on past greatness.
This was as good as this sport gets, No. 5 Notre Dame's 73-72 win against No. 1 Connecticut not earned until it had survived three consecutive possessions in the final 30 seconds by the Huskies, a defensive effort Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw compared to the goal-line stand her school's football team made to preserve perfection against Stanford in the fall.
Only this time, the stand ended a spotless season and silenced a capacity crowd.[+] EnlargeMark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame coach Muffet McGraw credited Skylar Diggins' leadership for the success of this season's team.
And for Notre Dame, which lost at Baylor earlier this season, it was a reminder that a team coming off back-to-back appearances in the national championship game is still a part of the title chase this season.
"This is good for us," Notre Dame senior Skylar Diggins said. "The history of the [Connecticut] program, how big it's been, how many national championships they've got, how many All-American players that came out of here and been successful at the next level, I think a lot of people are afraid of the name on the front of the jersey.
"And I don't think we are anymore. I thought we did a good job of showing that and being tough."
It didn't prove Notre Dame is the better team, just as it wouldn't have proved the opposite had a 3-pointer from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis on the last of those three possessions not missed the mark. The final score and the happy flight back to South Bend it guaranteed were the reward, but Notre Dame proved its point over 40 minutes, that it was a game that could have gone either way.
"If you look at the stat sheet, it's almost like a mirror image of each other, both teams," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "A play here and a play there ends up determining the game."
The thing is, a play here or a play there more often than not means the difference between losing by 24 points or 26 points in Storrs. Notre Dame made those one or two plays, but it also made all the plays that made them matter.
Kayla McBride finished with a career-high 21 points, seemingly all of them on either midrange jumpers or drives in traffic, and was a bulwark of consistency -- scoring 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the first half and 10 points on 5-of-11 shooting in the second half.
Last season, McBride was a supporting scorer alongside Diggins and Natalie Novosel. She was supposed to follow when Brittany Mallory and Devereaux Peters led.
This season, she is both the leading scorer and a leader. She was the player who made shots few players can against Connecticut's defense.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Bill ShettleConnecticut's Kelly Faris, left, battles for a loose ball with Notre Dame freshman Jewell Loyd during Saturday's game.
"I think it starts in the summer, her work ethic in the summer," Diggins said. "Getting in the weight room, dropping some pounds, gaining some muscle -- she's just been conditioning, conditioning, conditioning, lifting. She's always in the gym.
"You can count on her being in the gym working on her shot, trying to get better and help the team. She knew she had to step up to this role when she came in. I thought she did a good job preparing to step up this year."
It wasn't just McBride, who was a significant supporting character last season. In so many ways, this wasn't the same Notre Dame team that ended last season at least on level footing with its rival, if not with the upper hand after an overtime thriller went its way in the Final Four.
It had the same star, Diggins providing fans in Connecticut with a familiar face to heckle, but for stretches with the game on the line, it also had on the court two freshmen, Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd, and a junior, Ariel Braker, who played seven minutes a game last season. Yet this team ended up with the same result that emerged from three of last season's four games.
Connecticut freshman Breanna Stewart, so good so often this season, struggled all day (although it says something about the scope of her talent that she still finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and six blocks).
That happens to players still getting used to games like this.
"It's really hard," Auriemma said. "I think you probably want to play really, really well. You want to play really well so badly that maybe you just get a little bit ahead of yourself, I don't know."
Which makes all the more impressive what a guard who had played just 93 minutes all season did for the Fighting Irish. Slowed by injuries in recent weeks, Mabrey had appeared in just seven games prior to Saturday and hit just six 3-pointers. She hit three in 21 minutes off the bench against the Huskies.
At one point late in the game, the outcome seemingly hinging on every possession, Mabrey drove toward the right baseline and appeared to eschew a pass to Diggins, instead taking and missing her own shot. That was the play that didn't work, the exception that proved the rule on an afternoon when she played a pivotal role for which she seemed ill cast.
"That came from Jersey," McGraw said of the Belmar, N.J., native. "That was just a Jersey girl that had no fear. She's just not really a freshman; she plays the same way all the time. ... We have worked her in really hard at practice this last week, and she really responded well. She's not afraid to shoot the ball, and she handles criticism well, so you can say anything you want to her. She's not a fragile player. ... I'm just elated with the game she had today."
And there was, of course, Diggins, whose back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the second half erased a four-point deficit that appeared on the verge of becoming much more and whose drive in the final minute earned her the free throws that provided the final margin.
She finished with 19 points, five assists and four steals, but those numbers were not her most important contribution. That came long before Saturday.
"She's been such a great leader with this team," McGraw said. "And they hang on every word she says. They just want to please her and do what she wants them to do."
At least one more meeting is guaranteed when Connecticut visits Notre Dame in the final game of the regular season. McGraw said after the game that she hopes to continue the rivalry but has been told by Connecticut it isn't feasible for at least the next two seasons.
That's a shame. It leaves one of the most special environments in the women's game without what Notre Dame proved remains the sport's best show.
Women's basketball needs more afternoons like Saturday in Storrs.
Maybe Tennessee is available.
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