By Carl Adamec
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Since the rivalry began on Jan. 18, 1996, the University of Connecticut and Notre Dame women’s basketball teams have played 39 times with the latest being the second-ranked Irish’s 96-87 classic triple-overtime win over the Huskies here Monday night that gave them a second straight outright Big East regular season championship.
UConn still holds a commanding 29-10 advantage, but Notre Dame has turned the tables in winning six of the last seven.
“When you look at how many times we’ve played each other it’s really hard not to look at the aggregate,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “What have we played each other, 13 times in the last like two and a half years? I think I feel like we’re going to find a way to win. We’ve got it rolling right now, and whatever it takes we’re going to find a way to win.”
The Huskies (27-3 overall, 14-2 Big East) led by six at halftime and by one in the final minute of regulation. They did not trail in the extra sessions until the first minute of the third overtime. Jewell Loyd’s basket gave the Irish (28-1, 16-0) the lead for good with 2:50 left as an 11-0 run put away Notre Dame’s school record-tying 23rd straight win.
“There are a million things we should have done differently,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “In the end you have to figure out who wants it more and what are you willing to give up to get it. It can’t come from one or two people. You need a whole team that’s willing to give up literally anything.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 26 points and played all 55 minutes for the Huskies. Faris had career highs of 21 points and 13 rebounds in 53 minutes. Skylar Diggins went the distance for Notre Dame and had 29 points (11-for-31 from the floor) and 11 rebounds.
For Indiana natives Faris and Diggins, it was their 13th meeting as collegians. No UConn player as faced an opponent more than Faris has faced Notre Dame.
“The rivalry with them … If we’re going to lose to somebody, we don’t want it to be them,” Diggins said. “We just tried to stay in it and fight. We’re all competitors from the head coach all the way down to the end of the bench. We always feel like we can find a way to win. That’s been the mindset of this team and I think that’s why we exceeded a lot of people’s expectations this year.”
In the six losses to Notre Dame since the 2011 Final Four in Indianapolis, the Huskies have led in the second half of all six and with a minute or less in four, including the last three. In the first 32 meetings between the schools, UConn lost one second-half lead (the 2001 Final Four semifinal) and no last-minutes leads.
A big part of it is Diggins, who’s had her way for the most part against the Huskies’ backcourt as a junior and senior. And while UConn-killer Natalie Novosel graduated a year ago, Kayla McBride (26 points, game-tying 3-pointer in the first overtime) has come in and the Irish haven’t missed a beat.
“That’s what guards that are All-Americans do,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of Diggins. “I’ve had a couple of those in my lifetime and they make those kinds of plays and they make them when they need to be made. That’s what makes them who they are.
“It can be as simple as you want it to be or as complicated as you want it to be. Your guards have to do a good job controlling the game and for stretches we did. At crucial times we didn’t. It’s very frustrating.”
UConn committed 35 turnovers with 10 coming in the overtimes after guard Bria Hartley fouled out. Stefanie Dolson finished with 11 turnovers and she didn’t play in the overtimes after fouling out. Breanna Stewart had five while Hartley, Mosqueda-Lewis, and Faris had four apiece.
“I have no idea,” Auriemma said when asked about the miscues. “I guess we’re not any good.”
“When we ran at the ball and threw some double teams at them, that was most effective,” McGraw said.
Still, the Huskies led by one with 53 seconds left of regulation, by four with 21 seconds left in the first overtime, and by five in the second overtime and lost each one.
But that the kind of thing has been happening over and over to the Huskies. In the last three seasons, UConn is 1-7 in games decided by six points or less or overtime. Four of those games were against Notre Dame with Baylor and St. John’s each being involved in two of those of games. When the Huskies had Maya Moore (2007-11), they were 7-1 in those situations.
UConn will try to turn it around starting in the Big East tournament this weekend. The five-time defending champions open play Sunday at 6 p.m. against either DePaul, Marquette, or Pittsburgh at the XL Center in Hartford.
“The same thing happened last year,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “We were in the same situation, and luckily we came out and we played like a completely different team and we won.”
We’ll know in a week if they have that in them again.