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DENVER -- Brittany Mallory walked out of the Notre Dame locker room with the mascot's green hat atop her head, an arm dangled across teammate Skylar Diggins' shoulder.
It seemed appropriate that Mallory and Diggins, walking shoulder to shoulder, were the first out of the celebratory locker room because, just a few minutes earlier, the pair had combined for the most crucial sequence in the Fighting Irish's 83-75 overtime victory over UConn on Sunday night: a 13-second chunk of the game that felt like riding a mini roller-coaster.
|Skylar Diggins led Notre Dame to its second consecutive national title game.|
This crucial sequence began with 1:43 left in overtime. Diggins, in a rare flustered moment, let the ball slip out of her grasp near the right wing. It bounced into the hands of Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes, who turned upcourt with teammate Bria Hartley, a stretch of empty hardwood -- and the possibility of the go-ahead bucket -- in front of them. Diggins spun on her heels, sprinted back on defense, and cleverly blocked Hartley's layup attempt, doing so in such a way that also allowed her to grab the rebound. (Those in Notre Dame's locker room weren't the least bit surprised Diggins followed a mistake with a breathtaking play because, as they explained, she has a habit of getting angry -- and then even -- when it looks as if someone has gotten the best of her.)
These were the first six seconds of the 13-second roller coaster. A dip, then a rise -- or a rise, then a dip, depending on your rooting interests.
"That was game-saving," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "That was huge. You can't even -- that would have turned the game around had they made that layup. So it was just so important."
Diggins wasn't done. She grabbed the rebound and raced the ball upcourt, defenders on either side. She penetrated directly down the middle of the lane. Mallory, who'd hit her first 3-pointer of the night not a minute earlier, trailed behind Diggins and flared to the right wing -- wide open. Diggins drew three defenders, then kicked a pass out to her teammate. With 1:30 on the clock, exactly 13 seconds after the ball had rolled out of Diggins' hands, Mallory's shot swirled through the Pepsi Center rim and gave the Irish a two-possession lead they would never relinquish.
In 13 seconds, Diggins collected a turnover, a block, a rebound, an assist, and probably a few thousands more Twitter followers.
"As most games do, it turned on the one great play by a great player," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who immediately called a timeout.
Diggins, chest heaving, face ashen with fatigue (she played 44 of the game's 45 minutes), walked to the sidelines and caught Mallory's eye. She pointed at her teammate and tilted her head sideways as if to say, "All you, Brittany, that was all you."
When the roller-coaster finally stopped, Notre Dame had advanced to the national championship game for the second consecutive season, but the Irish did so only after stopping the hearts of all those wearing green. After appearing to have the game in hand in the final minutes of regulation, Notre Dame coughed up the lead -- turning the ball over on multiple possessions down the stretch -- and only forced overtime when guard Natalie Novosel (team-high 20 points) converted a tricky, reverse putback with just 4.6 seconds left in regulation.
Novosel's heroics set the table for Mallory's.
"My whole team was telling me to keep shooting, saying, 'They're going to fall, they're going to fall,'" said Mallory, who was 0-for-3 from beyond the arc before her timely treys. "And Sky hit me for the pass and I lined up, I just took a deep breath and let it go and was thinking to myself this one's going in. And finally they both went in and I was so happy. I couldn't believe it. I was so happy."
"She almost cried," added teammate Devereaux Peters. Mallory nodded, laughed. "I did," she said. "I was so excited."
Saturday night ended with Notre Dame giddy, bordering on euphoric. They'd eliminated arch-rival UConn ("Yeah," Mallory answered when asked if the win felt sweeter because it was UConn) and now only unbeaten Baylor stands between Notre Dame and its season-long goal of a national championship. But when the Irish jogged back to the locker room at halftime, trailing 36-33, they looked ready to dropkick a chair. Diggins was the last player through the door; she'd just collected her second foul at the end of the half and was dripping frustration. McGraw was stonefaced; her team was doing none of the things it needed to do to win. She gathered her coaching staff in a separate room, allowed her players a few minutes to themselves.
What was the message? Well, that the second half would need to belong to Diggins and Novosel, that Notre Dame's starting backcourt could not be beaten to anymore loose balls, could not allow any of the hustle plays to belong to the Huskies. Because as Diggins and Novosel go, so go the Irish. By the time Diggins jogged back out for the second half (she was the last player out of Notre Dame's locker room), she had a sly smile on her face, a bounce in her step. And just before the buzzer to signal the start of the second half, Diggins beckoned the rest of the starting five to gather round. She was still smiling, talking about how they would play defense, how they would rebound, how they would win this game.
When it was over, Mallory walked out wearing that green hat, but she immediately raised a hand to her head, touched the hat, and said to Diggins, "I'm just going to wear this for a second, I'll take it off before we go into the interview room."
After all, the Irish still have one more game to win.