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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Strange as it seems to say about the fifth game in the past 12 months between the same two teams, Saturday's showdown between No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Notre Dame came down to one big difference.
Familiarity with the moment.
By the end of Notre Dame's 74-67 overtime win, a surplus of it put the Fighting Irish on distinctly unfamiliar footing. For the first time ever in a series spanning 34 games, they had back-to-back wins against Connecticut, adding Saturday's result to the one that came in the Final Four last spring. And for the first time in a long time, the Fighting Irish are clearly the team to beat in the Big East.
"Obviously when you get to the national championship game, you think that you're a pretty good team, and then you kind of start all over again," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We've got to prove ourselves all over again. So coming out and being able to beat such a great reputation nationally, ranked second in the country, you know they've got a tremendous program. They're well coached; they do so many things well. So to be able to beat a really good team, it feels really good."
The unpleasant feeling on the other side meant Connecticut found itself in the unfamiliar position of taking lessons from a rival.
For the second time in less than a month, Connecticut went on the road and looked for roughly 30 minutes like a team capable of winning a national championship without Maya Moore, the All-American who made everything look so much easier the past four seasons. For the second time in those games, Connecticut couldn't find a way to navigate unfamiliar territory at the end and couldn't stop special players who had learned the route the hard way.
Almost three weeks to the day after the Huskies watched a 13-point lead at Baylor slip away beneath a flurry of baskets and blocks by All-American Brittney Griner, who lost her first two meetings against Connecticut, an 8-point lead with nine minutes to play against Notre Dame vanished under the weight of scoring runs engineered by All-Americans Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel.
Diggins finished with 22 points, the largest concentration of which came during a 12-2 run in the second half that erased Connecticut's 53-45 lead and set the game on the see-saw path it followed through the remainder of regulation and into overtime. It wasn't Diggins' best game by any stretch of the imagination, a frustrating struggle on both ends of the court she seemed to sum up by ditching her trademark white headband midway through the second half. Then, when the game appeared to be slipping away, she scored 5 points in 17 seconds to bring the crowd to life and totaled 8 points, an assist and a diving save that led to another basket during the run.
"She ignited us," McGraw said of Diggins. "She hit a 3, got to the rim, made some free throws, just really, really came on. She had just a nice, great spurt. I thought we did a good job of attacking, but I think [the key was] her ability to come up with the big play, to hit the big 3, when you absolutely have to have some scoring and the ball's in her hands, which is where we want it."
|Natalie Novosel contributed 20 points, including six free throws in overtime, to Notre Dame's win.|
Novosel likewise didn't earn any points for artistry, hitting just five-of-20 shots from the field and turning the ball over four times in the first half. But although she was playing on a knee she injured earlier in the week at Seton Hall and that kept her out of practice, she kept taking the ball to the basket, hitting all nine of her free-throw attempts in the second half and 10-of-11 in the game en route to 20 points.
"I think that was my fault," Novosel said of her first-half struggles. "I just kept shooting jumpers," Novosel said. "If I'm not shooting jumpers well, then to get to the line is always my bread and butter. Once I get that, I'll get my confidence back."
In last season's Final Four win, Diggins and Novosel combined for 50 points in their team's 72-63 win. Saturday, they combined for 42 points. In those two wins, they combined to shoot 32 free throws. Connecticut took just 33 in the same span. The frequency of the duo's trips to the free-throw line was a point raised more than once by Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma after Saturday's game, but whatever the explanation, two players who are as good as any in the country at getting into the lane can't be faulted for leaving the decision in the hands of referees.
Diggins and Novosel learned how to rise to the occasion the hard way, in no small part by watching Connecticut do it time and again behind Maya Moore. Before the Fighting Irish won last spring's national semifinal, Novosel was 0-7 against the Huskies. Diggins was 0-6.
That was life against Connecticut.
"I have to admit that it was nice watching film and not seeing Maya out there because you worry so much about her," McGraw said. "But at the same time, [Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis] is a really great 3-point shooter, you've got to know where she is. [Bria] Hartley's playing really well; I think she's really stepped up. And then you worry about [Stefanie] Dolson. You worry about how can we double team her, where can we bring somebody from, who can we leave?"As was the case against Baylor, Hartley did her best to be the answer. The sophomore guard was responsible for a good portion of Diggins' frustration throughout the night, looking like the fastest player on the court in a game played at breakneck speed in the first place. On another night, her 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists would have been the story. On this night, it wasn't to be.
"I think that's a little bit of a transition for them, going from somebody who takes the big shot to now who is going to take the big shot?" McGraw said. "It looks to me like Bria Hartley is the one who is going to end up taking them. They're a young team. They're so talented, they're going to figure it out really quickly."
If Connecticut had shot better than 60 percent from the free-throw line, the story might be different. If freshman Mosqueda-Lewis, so brilliant in a win against Stanford, hadn't played the part of a freshman in committing a costly turnover in the closing seconds of regulation, one of 27 the team committed in its most careless performance since 2007, the story might have been different.
It says quite a bit about these Huskies that they were good enough to put themselves in position to beat Baylor and Notre Dame on the road. It says something about familiarity with the moment that, like Griner before them, Diggins and Novosel made the plays that mattered.
Those two learned. The Huskies will have to do the same.
"The moral victory is, all right, we put ourselves in position to win both of those games," Auriemma said. "But we didn't do it. Maybe we're just not ready to win those games yet. We have too many guys that have not been counted on to do that in those situations. Right now, they're struggling with it a little bit."
Notre Dame learned that lesson last season, learned it well enough over the course of three tough losses to come back and earn a chance to play for a national championship by beating Connecticut in the Final Four.
The Huskies won't want to wait that long. The Fighting Irish won't want to give up the role of teacher. The sequel awaits in February.