- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- At one point late in the second overtime Monday, as Notre Dame rallied yet again against rival Connecticut, one of the young kids, a girl charged with wiping the court clear of sweat, started jumping up and down in excitement at something the Fighting Irish had just done. The boy who shared the duties with her at that end of the court, both of them no older than grade school, chastised her and pulled her back to the task at hand.
By the end of the third overtime, the same boy was on his feet cheering right along with the girl and the rest of a full house in Purcell Pavilion as Skylar Diggins stepped to the free throw line with the outcome finally decided.
This wasn't a night for decorum. This was a night in which to lose yourself. A night to enjoy three overtimes and multiple comebacks, and pay respect to a second consecutive Big East regular-season championship for Notre Dame.
Final score: Notre Dame 96, Connecticut 87.
Now try to explain what happened.
"Unbelievable," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I can't even think of any words."
English can be clunky, but it is also a wonderful language for all the options it offers in such moments.
Exhausting. Intense. Flawed. Sloppy. Fitting. Thrilling. Riveting. The list goes on. But it was March, and this was Connecticut and Notre Dame.
Let's go with rollicking.
These teams have now played 10 times in the past 26 months. Only two of those games were decided by double digits. Three of them went to overtime, including Monday's marathon encounter. And the Fighting Irish, who had just four wins in 26 games against the Huskies before Diggins arrived, have won six of the past seven meetings.
The total point difference at the end of regulation in those seven games is 14 points -- Notre Dame 465, Connecticut 451.
That is why this is one of the best rivalries in sports at the moment. Not in the past, and who knows about the future. But right now. And for one of the few times ever in a rivalry, it's the other team that has Connecticut's number.
"We look at each one separately," McGraw said. "But I think when you look at how many times we've played each other, it's really hard not to look at the aggregate. … I think I feel like we're going to find a way to win. We've got it rolling right now, and whatever it takes, we're going to find a way to win."
First, they needed to find a way to hit a shot Monday. Notre Dame came out cold even by the standards of winter in South Bend. The Fighting Irish hit just two of their first 17 shots. At one point, Diggins was 2-for-10 from the field, Jewell Loyd 0-for-6, Kayla McBride 0-for-7 and Natalie Achonwa on the bench in foul trouble having not attempted a shot. Those three entered Monday night averaging nearly 60 points per game combined.
McGraw said her team looked like it was the one under pressure in the first half. Perhaps that was the residue of the jitters so many other teams get against Connecticut. Perhaps it was the the team feeding off Diggins, who seemed to be playing half a beat ahead of herself in her final game in South Bend.
"I don't know why we were doing that," Diggins said. "I don't know why we were pressing, but we just were. It could be because of both reasons."
In the final accounting, the numbers still look raw for Diggins, who scored a game-high 29 points but hit 11 of 31 shots and committed eight turnovers, and Kayla McBride, who scored a career-best 26 points but needed 28 shots to do it. They missed 37 shots between them, and yet they were the most commanding players on the court. McBride scored on an assortment of physical, athletic drives and jumpers that few other players in the women's game can manage. Diggins was relentless, relentless when she was under control and relentless in those moments when control slipped away. There wasn't a selfish shot on her chart; her team needed her to do what she did Monday.
"That's what guards who are All-Americans do," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said of Diggins, in an assessment that might as well have applied to both Notre Dame guards. "I've had a couple of those in my lifetime, and they make those kinds of plays. And they make them when they need to be made. And that's what makes them who they are."
Make no mistake, Connecticut had to give the game away before Notre Dame could seize it. The Huskies led by six points with 2:48 to play in the first overtime and still by four points a minute later. But four missed free throws and two turnovers, two of a stunning 35 total turnovers for a program renowned for taking care of the ball, opened the door for McBride's 3-pointer to bounce off the front of the rim, up into the air and through the net with eight seconds left to force a second overtime.
With McBride on the bench for good after fouling out in the second overtime (joining Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley as excluded players), Connecticut again took a five-point lead with a little more than two minutes to play. Once again, the Fighting Irish rallied behind baskets from Diggins, Achonwa and finally Kaila Turner, the other senior on a night when the focus was understandably on Diggins.
On to a third overtime it went. One of two players to play all 55 minutes, along with Connecticut senior and Indiana native Kelly Faris, Diggins explained the survival mode both teams were in at that point.
"I think everybody's tired at that point," Diggins said. "It's all about trying to string together one or two stops and then coming down and executing on offense. When we get into overtime like that, early, you try and use some clock. But teams like us, we like to run, so it's all about just trying to string together some stops and giving it all you've got for the last couple of minutes."
It wasn't clear by the time it was over whether either of these teams is ready to beat Baylor in the coming weeks. The play switched between exhilirating and sloppy, sometimes both at the same time, and outside of Turner's big game and some flashes from Breanna Stewart, neither team got much help off the bench. What was clear was that we should hope there is at least one more meeting between these two before we get to Baylor.
If we're greedy, two more would be nice. Exhausted, frustrated and subdued in defeat, Faris was able to articulate why.
"When you come [to Connecticut], these are the games that you live for," she said of the final stages. "At that point in time, being tired doesn't really matter. It shouldn't faze you at all. If the game is on the line, that part of you, if you're a competitor, that's out the window. It doesn't matter how long you've been on the court, it doesn't matter how long your opponent's been on the court.
"There's a game out there to win, and that should be the anything and everything that's on your mind."
It was the kind of game worthy of settling a championship, worthy of a capacity crowd and worthy of national audience. It was a game worthy of what Diggins did for her program the past four seasons.
"It's bittersweet for me, this being my last game," Diggins said. "But what a way to go out."
Words don't do it justice.
13dBonnie D. Ford