Irish win, return to title game
DENVER -- A look at Notre Dame's 83-75 victory over Connecticut in Sunday's first national semifinal game at the Pepsi Center.
HOW THE GAME WAS WON: As an overtime game might indictate, the difference was razor thin on Sunday. The players said all week it would come down to hustle plays and both Notre Dame and UConn made plenty. It really came down to which team made the biggest plays. Natalie Novosel made one with a reverse layup to tie the score with 4.6 seconds left in regulation. Skylar Diggins made one with a block of Bria Hartley on a shot that could have given Connecticut the lead. And Brittany Mallory buried two enormous 3-pointers in overtime. UConn made some big plays in regulation to get back in the game, but the biggest heroics were reserved for Notre Dame and its veterans in the extra period.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Diggins had 19 points and Novosel finished with 20, but this was a game for grinders and players to make big plays in big moments. Mallory scored seven points in the overtime, including a 3-pointer with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left to put the Irish up for good. Her second 3 gave Notre Dame the cushion it needed, and then Mallory all but delivered Notre Dame to the national title game by stealing away the ball from Kelly Faris.
PLAYER OF THE GAME II: Devereaux Peters. The Notre Dame center was outplayed by UConn's Stefanie Dolson in the first half, but was quietly dominant after halftime. Perhaps helped by Dolson's foul trouble, Peters finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds and, somewhat remarkably, played 40 of the game's 45 minutes. Dolson still finished with 20 points, but Peters was the better center in the second half.
TURNING POINT: With Notre Dame up 73-72 in overtime, Diggins uncharacteristically coughed up possession of the ball. But just seconds later as the only Irish player back on the UConn fast break, she blocked Hartley's layup attempt. Diggins then grabbed the loose ball, raced the length of the court and kicked the ball out to Mallory. The Notre Dame senior proceeded to bury her second 3-pointer in overtime to give the Irish a two-possession lead, 76-72, with 1:25 left.
TURNING POINT II: This was more about a sequence of plays by one player than just one moment. Kelly Faris, who struggled all game while matched up against Devereaux Peters and Natalie Achonwa, finally broke through to deliver in the final two minutes of regulation. With UConn down four with just 1:20 left, Faris stole the ball from Novosel and put back Tiffany Hayes' miss to make it a two-point game. Just 36 seconds later, she drove hard to the basket, got fouled and made both free throws to tie the score with 44 seconds left in the second half. Then following a wild sequence, Faris stole the ball from Diggins, got fouled and made two more free throws, giving the Huskies a two-point lead. In just more than a minute, Faris had scored six points to temporarily save UConn's chances.
STAT OF THE GAME: UConn was always fearful of Notre Dame getting too many chances a the free throw line, and those fears rang true in the second half and overtime. Ultimately, Notre Dame got to the line 27 times, making 20 foul shots. Meanwhile, UConn was only 10-for-13 from the line.
FINAL X FACTOR: Dolson was the best player on the floor in the first half, but just 32 seconds into the second half picked up her third foul. UConn coach Geno Auriemma gambled and left his sophomore on the floor only to see her pick up her fourth foul. Dolson then had to sit until the 10-minute mark -- and UConn looked like a different team. She left with the score tied, but returned with the Huskies down 54-49. Ultimately, UConn rallied to send the game to overtime, but the impact of not having its best player of the night for almost 7½ minutes surely had an impact on the overall outcome.
First-half analysis: Connecticut 36, Notre Dame 33
HOW THE HALF WAS WON: The Huskies did it by being the aggressor. They got down early, 7-2, but kept coming after the Irish. Once Stefanie Dolson made a couple of buckets, UConn was able to use its three-quarter-court pressure. That immediately set the tempo to the way the Huskies wanted it -- and it stayed that way the rest of the half, despite Notre Dame's efforts to run the shot clock down at a number of different possessions midway through the half.
PLAYER OF THE HALF: UConn's Stefanie Dolson. The Huskies' early strategy clearly was to go to their sophomore center. She took four of the Huskies' first five shots, scoring eight of UConn's first 13 points. She was able to get position against Devereaux Peters down low, and the UConn guards got Dolson the ball with precision over-the-defense lobs. The intense pace of the game, though, required Dolson to exit the game for a breather after the first official time-out. She was only out for about a minute of game time. In a half that would be characterized as intense, Dolson provided more energy than anyone. She finished the first 20 minutes with 12 points and five rebounds.
PLAYER OF THE HALF II: Connecticut's Bria Hartley. The sophomore point guard made two early 3-pointers, the second of which put the Huskies ahead for the first time at 13-11. It was a lead the Huskies never lost after being down 7-2 early. Hartley also got the better of her point guard counterpart Skylar Diggins. Hartley had success getting by Diggins off the dribble and finished with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
PLAYER OF THE HALF III: Notre Dame's Natalie Novosel. Like she often does, the senior kept Notre Dame in the game with the hustle plays that all the players said would be so important in this eighth matchup of the two teams in the last two seasons. Brittany Mallory was also grinding, but Novosel's hustle more often ended in points. She leads Notre Dame with 11 points.
KEY STAT: The Huskies wanted to keep Notre Dame's trips to the free throw line to a minimum. And they were able to do that. Notre Dame made just 3-of-6 free throws.
KEY STAT II: Of the Irish's 19 first-half boards, 10 came on the offensive glass.