Notre Dame saves best for last
In last Big East season, Irish finally win their first league tournament crown
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Just about the only thing more likely to disappoint than a sequel is a finale.
So on a night when she led Notre Dame to a win unlike any that came before it, and unlike any that can come after it, give Skylar Diggins credit, too, for succeeding where Francis Ford Coppola, Jerry Seinfeld and so many others so often fail.
The Big East rivalry between Notre Dame and Connecticut saved its best -- or at least something that lived up to the impossible standard of what came before -- for last.
On the day the school confirmed it would begin play in the ACC in the 2013-14 academic year, Notre Dame beat Connecticut 61-59 to win its first and only Big East tournament title. It completed its final season in the conference without a loss, thereby denying UConn a share of either the regular-season or tournament title for the first time in 20 years. And one thing is clear after the Irish's seventh win in the past eight games against their rival.
Notre Dame is the better team. Not by a lot and not forever. But too often now not to notice.
Diggins makes it the better team, which is why the final game had to conclude with the ball in her hands.
Connecticut had all the time a team could want to set up a potential winning possession -- more time, in fact, than Geno Auriemma said he wanted after a problem with the shot clock forced a stoppage in play with 18 seconds left, the score tied and the ball in the hands of the Huskies after an offensive rebound. Even after the stoppage and a subsequent timeout, they got nothing out of the play that followed. Five parts diverging on the court.
Notre Dame had no such luxury of time to plan a route to victory. It had to trust Diggins to find her way after she stole an errant pass with what the official statistics said was six seconds left in regulation (she said she recalled about eight seconds on the clock when she glanced up after claiming the ball). From almost right in front of Auriemma on the wrong end of the court, she sprinted through bodies toward the opposite basket.
Moments earlier, she had appeared to absorb a lot of contact when she missed a shot in the lane that would have broken the tie. Now she again felt one, two, even three fouls go uncalled as she reached the free throw line and spotted a white jersey ahead of her and behind the only blue jersey that mattered. She made the pass, and Natalie Achonwa scored the easiest winner possible.
"That's the fastest I've ever seen Natalie Achonwa run down the court to get the ball," Diggins joked. "Kind of had to dribble through, I was trying to draw a foul, but they let it go -- I'm glad they let it go. And Natalie was just there."
Diggins did as much as anyone to win the game with that final mad dash, but the tournament title was hardly a solo effort. Junior Kayla McBride earned Auriemma's praise and the tournament's most outstanding player honors after she led all scorers with 23 points, three shy of the career high she reached in last week's triple-overtime win against Connecticut.
A season after Notre Dame lost three starters from teams that reached back-to-back national championship games, McBride's maturation into an elite player was instrumental all season.
"Be able to score, rebound, guarding the post a little bit, be our best defender, things like that," McBride said of Muffet McGraw's plan for her. "But it's a growth process for me, especially just because I came in as a sophomore being more of a role player with so many great players surrounding you, to [now] being one of the main players. I've taken it in stride, and I think Sky's helped me a lot with my confidence, just to know that I can be that for this team.
"Just coming of age, and I feel like I've grown up a lot."
That's the tricky thing about lionizing a player such as Diggins. She's entirely capable of posting a triple-double on a given night or scoring 33 points at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena, as she did earlier this season. She finished Tuesday's game with 12 points, 6 assists, 5 steals and 3 rebounds, hardly a shabby line. But much of what she contributes is less measurable, particularly on a team as young as this one.
It is tempting to credit her for every good thing that happens.
McBride was brilliant shooting the ball, as it seems she has been every time she has played Connecticut recently. Aside from a brief stretch in the second half when it appeared the toll of a triple-overtime game eight days earlier and three games in three days in Hartford might have taken a toll on her legs, McBride hit shots that defenses simply can't stop -- closely guarded baseline jumpers, leaners and acrobatic finishes.
As she put it, McBride was a little short and "a little chubby" when she was a kid, which left her with little choice but to shoot from outside against bigger, quicker players. She's neither short nor chubby anymore, but she's still the craftiest shooter around.
She deserves the credit for making herself into a player who is physically strong and mentally fearless. At the same time, she isn't just willing to give Diggins credit for helping her get there, she's eager to bestow it on her.
"It's just her," McBride said of how Diggins imparts that confidence. "I think her confidence and her passion for the game, it's almost contagious. She believes in us as much as we believe in her. I think it's easy to play with her, and it's easy to believe in her because she believes in you so much. UConn made some great runs. UConn's a great team, but we were able to stay together because we had confidence in ourselves, confidence in each other and that poise."
When Connecticut turns over the ball 35 times, as it did in the game in South Bend last week, or fails to hit a 3-pointer for the first time in more than a decade, as occurred Tuesday night, it says something about that team sowing the seeds of its own destruction. It also says something about an opponent in the rare position of running a poise surplus against the Huskies.
When Connecticut first rallied in the opening half behind a lineup with three big bodies -- Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart and Kiah Stokes -- it was Diggins who picked up a Bria Hartley turnover and quieted the crowd. With a little more than five minutes to play and momentum trending toward the Huskies, Diggins altered a close shot from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis at the last second, corralled the miss and went end-to-end to hit a tough runner in the lane. Diggins doesn't always make the right plays, but ever since the NCAA tournament her sophomore season, when she keyed wins against Tennessee in a regional final and Connecticut in the Final Four, you feel as if she can.
"I feel like Tennessee was the first one because, for her and for us, we had never beaten Tennessee, we had never beaten Pat Summitt at that point," said Notre Dame assistant coach Niel Ivey, the point guard on the 2001 national championship team. "I think that was a turning point for her because it was like, 'OK, I can play with anybody.' And for us, that was really the only team we hadn't beaten in program history."
It seems almost certain the Notre Dame-Connecticut series will continue in one form or another as the schools part conference ways. But it won't be the same. Partly because it won't be a Big East rivalry. Mostly because Diggins won't be around.
"Her legacy is going to be unmatched, certainly unparalleled for decades to come," McGraw said.
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