By Carl Adamec
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Time and time again Monday night the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team had a share of the Big East regular season championship in its grasp. Time and time again the Huskies let it slip away.
Finally in the third overtime, Notre Dame did what it’s done to UConn over and over again the past 14 months and Monday night it got the Irish their second straight outright crown.
All-American Skylar Diggins (29) and perhaps soon-to-be All-American Kayla McBride (26) combined for 55 points as No. 2 Notre Dame pulled out a 96-87 triple-overtime win over third-ranked UConn before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at the Joyce Center. It was the sixth win in the last seven meetings for the Irish (28-1 overall, 16-0 Big East) over the Huskies. In all six losses, UConn led in the second half and in four, including the last three, it’s led in the final minute.
“I don’t know how many times we can lose to the same team, keep getting the same results, and keep thinking something different is going to happen,” UConn sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “Something has to change.”
The Huskies (27-3, 14-2) 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. Finally, after not leading at any point in the first two extra sessions, Notre Dame used an 11-0 run, including four points each by Jewell Loyd and Diggins, to take a 93-83 lead and capture its 23rd straight win.
“When two really good teams are playing it usually comes down to little things that you need to do at the right time,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “If you do them you put yourself in a position to win, and we certainly did that in regulation, the first overtime, and the second overtime. We couldn’t finish it off. It’s like every opportunity we had to put it away we let it slip away from us.
“How many chances can you have? You’re on the road against a really good team and you might get one chance or two chances when it really matters. You’re not going to get unlimited chances. Their guards when they had to make some big shots they made them. We had a chance to win the game at the free-throw line and we didn’t do it.”
UConn led 34-28 at halftime and 64-63 with 53 seconds left on a Kelly Faris basket. The Huskies got a stop with 32.6 seconds to go but referee Dennis DeMayo, who in the first half called a technical foul on Auriemma, whistled Stefanie Dolson for an illegal screen that was her fifth foul. Just 5.4 seconds later, DeMayo called Bria Hartley for her fifth foul on Diggins’ drive to the basket. Diggins made a free throw to tie it.
“Compared to a whole bunch of stuff that was going on, right?” Auriemma said of the foul on Dolson. “It’s unfortunate that happened.”
But the Huskies seemed on their way to a huge win with a 70-64 lead in the first overtime. But Breanna Stewart missed the front end of two one-and-ones and Faris missed one front end as the Irish pulled within two. Morgan Tuck’s free throw made it 71-68 but McBride came down and got the friendly rim on a 3-pointer — Notre Dame’s only trey of the game — to force a second overtime.
Auriemma said he considered fouling to not let the Irish get a three off.
“I didn’t do it. Maybe I should have. I don’t know,” he added. “I never thought the kid would just walk up to the three-point line and we would stand there and watch her shoot it, either. It’s been that kind of year. I’ve seen a lot of things I haven’t seen before.”
UConn led 80-75 in the second overtime but got only one free throw in the final 2:23 as Kaila Turner’s jumper tied it at 81 with 47.2 seconds left.
It was all Irish from there.
“You don’t want to lose,” Diggins said. “We always think that we can find a way to win.”
Diggins, who also had 11 rebounds, played all 55 minutes.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the resiliency of this group, to refuse to lose,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We were done in regulation. In the first and second overtime we kept clawing away. That was a war, just what we expected.”
Mosqueda-Lewis also played all 55 minutes and had 26 points. Faris went 53 minutes and had 21 points and 13 rebounds. Dolson had 12 points and 11 rebounds but also committed 11 of UConn’s 35 turnovers.
“How are we going to win with 35 turnovers?,” Faris said. “Coach told us the guards were going to be pressured and challenged and it starts with the top down. The seniors didn’t accept the pressure well and we can’t expect the younger guys to do it if we can’t even do it. Thirty-five turnovers, that’s incredibly unacceptable.
“You walk away from a game you could have won three times and still lost? Yeah, that’s pretty frustrating.”
UConn needs to get over it quickly.
The Huskies will be the No. 2 seed for the Big East tournament and will begin defense of their title Sunday at 6 p.m. at the XL Center with a quarterfinal game against either seventh-seeded DePaul, No. 10 Marquette, or 15th seeded Pittsburgh.
“We need to take care of the ball better,” Auriemma said. “Unless we get better at it then this will be it for us. This will be the story of our season. We’re going to come up a little bit short.
“Did I think we’d go three overtimes after Stefanie and Bria went out? I have to give these guys a lot of credit for how hard we fought and the big shots we made and Kelly, God bless her …”
But playing hard is no consolation at UConn, especially when a championship slipped away.
“At the end we still lost,” Faris said. “No matter who we had on the floor we still should have been able to pull it out. We had multiple opportunities, and start with me missing free throws. We needed to step up and hit those and we would have won. No matter who’s on the floor, who’s on the bench, who’s in and who’s out, in this program it shouldn’t matter. We had a lot of opportunities and we let them go.”