NOTRE DAME Fighting Irish One streak halted, another one on the horizon to open NCAA Women’s Final Four By Todd Krise
t was minutes before Notre Dame’s biggest game of the season when head coach Muffet McGraw wanted nothing to do with her team. “I think the key is for me to stay away from them,” the 24-year coaching veteran said. “I think that’s the biggest thing I try and do. They are a loose group on their own. They seem to get themselves ready.” The strategy worked as the Fighting Irish defeated No. 1-seeded Tennessee, 73-59, on March 28 to earn a spot in this weekend’s Women’s Final Four. The win reverberated through every corner of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program. That’s because it took 21 tries for the Fighting Irish to finally beat the Lady Volunteers. “The first thing the team said was, ‘1-20, 1-20!’ ” McGraw said. “The team figured that the law of averages having them winning at least one.”
Skylar Diggins was a unanimous first-team all-Big East selection this season. 70
Notre Dame (30-7) is competing in its third Women’s Final Four. The two previous trips came in 1997 and 2001, the latter ending with a national championship. The Fighting Irish are the 17th school to earn three trips to the Women’s Final Four in its 30-year history, as well as the second Big East Conference school (Connecticut) and second school from the state of Indiana (Purdue). Notre Dame, like many teams, had to deal with its share of adversity in order to get to this point. The Fighting Irish’s troubles began November 18 when senior spark plug Brittany Mallory suffered a sprained ankle against UCLA. Notre Dame went on to lose that game in double overtime, as well as the next contest at Kentucky. Mallory returned November 27 and helped lead her team to an 8-1 record to close out the 2010 portion of the schedule. That’s when Notre Dame lost a key reserve to the program and had a prized freshman choose to sit the rest of the season. The loses were coupled with the nagging injuries of leading scorer Natalie Novosel, Fraderica Miller and Becca Bruszewski, and Notre Dame suddenly had its hands full. “I think there were some questions early,” McGraw admitted, following the Tennessee win. “We lost to UCLA at home, we lost to Kentucky on the road, but then after that I think we really started to play well. … I think the growth of this team is one of the best of any team I have ever coached.” Despite finishing the season 2-2 with road losses to Connecticut and DePaul, the Fighting Irish headed into the Big East tournament with a 24-6 record. After weaving its way past Louisville in the quarterfinals, Notre Dame exacted revenge against DePaul for the season-finale loss with a 71-64 semifinal victory. The win clinched the Fighting Irish’s first Big East championship game berth in 10 years. But like the 2001 title bout, Notre Dame fell to Connecticut, 73-64. Sophomore guard Skylar Diggins, though, knew the effort wasn’t going to be wasted. “The Big East is great for getting us ready for the (NCAA) tournament,” she said following the conference title game. “This is like a
(Women’s) Final Four game. We’ll take this momentum and see where we are at and get ready for the (NCAA) tournament, which is going to be very competitive.” It was Diggins and Novosel who scored 20 points apiece to help lift No. 2-seeded Notre Dame to a first-round victory against host Utah. The Fighting Irish now have won their first-round game in the NCAA tournament in 14 of their past 16 appearances. In the second round, Novosel scored 17 points and Devereaux Peters contributed her ninth-career double-double to earn a 77-64 victory over Temple. The win advanced Notre Dame to the regional semifinals for the ninth time and second season in a row. Against Oklahoma, Notre Dame used a stifling defensive effort and Mallory’s season-high 20 points to knock off the Sooners, 78-53, to reach the Dayton Region final. McGraw called her team’s defense “outstanding” and the win a total “team effort.” Diggins probably saved her best game of the year for Tennessee. The Fighting Irish’s secondleading scorer drained a season-high 24 points, helping Notre Dame keep control for practically the entire game — Tennessee led for only 2:43 in the first half. Diggins was named the Dayton Region Most Outstanding Player, a feat also earned by former Fighting Irish All-Americans Katryna Gaither (1997 East Region) and Ruth Riley (2001 Midwest Region). “This is what you work for,” Diggins said. “This team has so much camaraderie. We are all together and have been like that all year. When the off-court relationships are strong, it’s easier to take criticism on the court and be able to come together and do great things. We just rallied around each other to do this for our program.” Following the Tennessee win, the Fighting Irish were hoping for a rematch with Connecticut and that is exactly what they received after the Huskies defeated Duke in the Philadelphia Region final. Connecticut upended Notre Dame twice in the regular season and again in the conference title game. The Irish have lost 12 in a row to the Huskies, dating back to 2004-05.