By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — It seemed like a no-lose situation for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. The Huskies’ Big East tournament title game with Notre Dame Tuesday night was tied, they had the ball, and the shot clock was off.
“We were going to win or go to overtime,” UConn guard Bria Hartley said.
But nothing seems as it is for the Huskies against the Irish the last two seasons and it happened again at the most inopportune time. A turnover led to a transition opportunity and Skylar Diggins found Natalie Achonwa for a layup with 1.8 seconds left to give No. 1 Notre Dame a 61-59 win over second-seeded UConn and its first Big East tournament title.
“We were ready to go out there and make the play that would win the game,” UConn center Stefanie Dolson said. “We had a plan and ultimately it didn’t go our way. At the end, it was heartbreak.”
The Huskies (29-4) trailed by 13 in the first half and by 11 early in the second half. They rallied to take a short-lived lead only to fall back behind 59-53 with 2:56 left. But showing a toughness they might not have shown in earlier meetings, they went on a 6-0 run and tied it on a Dolson basket with 59 seconds to go. They then got a defensive stop to get the ball back 20 seconds later. When Kelly Faris grabbed a rebound of her own miss with about 22 seconds remaining, UConn was in position to win.
From there it was all downhill.
The first bad break came when the Big East assigned shot-clock operator somehow missed Faris’ shot hitting the bottom of the rim and did not reset — or in this case turn off — the 30-second clock. Referee Dee Kantner, under the basket, signaled to the scorer’s table to reset the clock but that, too, was missed and finally she had to stop play with 18.4 seconds left to get it right.
“We wanted to keep playing,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Tie score, at home … When it’s that late a lot of things pop up.”
After things were corrected at the scorer’s table, Auriemma used one of his three remaining time outs.
From there, the bad breaks to the Huskies were self-inflicted.
Breanna Stewart made a great one-handed catch on Faris’ lob pass towards the rim and was able to dribble the ball out and get it to Faris near the top of the key. The senior then drove to the basket and while on the baseline threw a pass to the far corner to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. The sophomore made the grab but lost her balance and flipped the ball into the air to save it and it went right to Notre Dame’s Diggins.
“The play we drew up was a good one,” Hartley said. “We worked on it in practice and got a lot out of it. It’s unfortunate. Maybe we should have tried to be more aggressive and at least got a shot up on the rim. Maybe then we’d get a rebound. At least, get a shot.”
Diggins began her race against time and Hartley, with UConn having a foul to give, hacked away at the All-American in an attempt to stop the break but the referees looked the other way because Diggins was able to keep possession. Achonwa beat the defense down the floor for the layup that gave the Irish (31-1) their seventh win over the Huskies in eight meetings.
“I guess it took a long time for the refs not to call fouls on us but they picked the worst timing,” Auriemma said. “We fouled her three times. We just tried to not make it look intentional. But as it turned out we would have had to tackle her for them to call it.”
UConn still had two time outs left with 1.8 seconds left but Stewart inbounded the ball to Faris, whose 75-foot heave fell wide.
The Huskies’ five-year reign as Big East tournament champion was over.
“This was my last shot,” Faris said. “It sucks. To lose on a last-second shot when we have the ball with no shot clock? I missed Kaleena at the top of the key. I could have done a lot more with the ball rather than drive to the baseline. There were a lot of options I could have chosen that were better than the one I did.
“But had we played the way we did the second half through the whole game we would have been fine.”
Dolson had a double-double (18 points, 14 rebounds) while Stewart (16 points) had her third straight strong postseason outing. Both were named to the all-tournament team.
But Notre Dame’s guards — Diggins, Kayla McBride, and Jewell Loyd — were again much better than their UConn counterparts. McBride torched UConn for the third time this season, finishing with 23 points and earning Most Outstanding Player honors. Diggins and Loyd joined her on the all-tournament team. The Huskies did not make a 3-pointer for the first time in 403 games with Mosqueda-Lewis, the nation’s leader in 3-point percentage, not even attempting one for the first time in 70 career games.
“I didn’t play great first half. I didn’t play great the whole game,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “I didn’t get myself open enough. I didn’t get my teammates open enough. Luckily, Kelly played awesome. Stewie came and played better than any freshman. She played like a senior tonight. And Bria hit big shots when we needed her to. Stefanie was phenomenal throughout the whole game like she has been the whole season. So if I would’ve helped a my team a little more we probably wouldn’t have even been in that situation.”
UConn will return to practice on Saturday. It will learn its NCAA tournament region, seed, and draw Monday and play its first NCAA game on March 23 at Gampel Pavilion.
From here on, it’s one and done.
“At this point, this program is about how you respond and that’s what Coach teaches us how to do,” Faris said. “Unfortunately we haven’t responded the way we need to, the way the program is used to responding, what people expect of us, and that’s why we’re sitting where we’re at right now. Had we responded the way we needed to, we would be on the other side so this is our last chance to respond in the right way, to respond how he teaches us to. This is our last opportunity to step up and make something of it.”