Irish win game of twists, turns
DENVER -- Brittany Mallory's overtime 3-pointers didn't provide the final twist in Sunday's semifinal between Notre Dame and Connecticut. But nothing else in a game marked by frenzy and physical play provided quite the degree of dramatic pause as the fifth-year senior's shots arcing high through the mile-high air.
When Mallory squared up a 3-point attempt with a little more than two minutes remaining in overtime and the score tied, she had hit just one shot from that distance in her past six games, a span of nearly 200 minutes on the court. Mallory nonetheless said she just took a deep breath and let it fly, urged all night to keep shooting by teammate Skylar Diggins. That the ball caught nothing but net, followed by a second 62 seconds later, did nothing to change the fact that for those with so much invested in their outcome, the shots seemed to hang in the air forever.
"Oh my gosh, they definitely did," Notre Dame sophomore Kayla McBride said. "But it's Brittany, and she had no hesitation. She was confident; we were all confident in her. We wouldn't have given the ball if we didn't."
Mallory came away with a smile. Notre Dame came away with an 83-75 victory and a spot in the championship game.
After the win, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw talked about Diggins making a game-saving play with a block in overtime that eventually led to the second of Mallory's 3-pointers. But the beauty of this night was just how many times an opportunity presented itself for one play or one person to change the course of the game.
There were only five lead changes in the game between the Fighting Irish and Huskies, not a remarkable number for a game that went to overtime, but there were that many turning points and then some. Notre Dame is moving on to the championship game for the second year in a row because however imperfect its navigation, it took the turns more capably.
For much of the first half, the only turning point that seemed likely to matter was the one that Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson reached earlier this season in a game at Marquette. Benched for most of that game and challenged by her coach to pick up her play, the 6-foot-5 sophomore responded with a strong run through the Big East tournament and the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament. But those performances were nothing compared to the one she put on Sunday night in Denver. Dolson is good with her back to the basket and good with the face-up jumper from around the free throw line, but when she put the ball on the floor and drove by Devereaux Peters for the game's opening basket, she looked like the center so many thought she could be.
By halftime, Dolson had 12 points and Connecticut had a lead for the second time in four meetings between the teams. But in the first minute of the second half, Dolson picked up her third foul when trying to recover after a Notre Dame offensive rebound. Dolson picked up two fouls early in a regional final against Kentucky, stayed in the game for much of the rest of the first half and didn't pick up a third foul until the game's final minutes. Auriemma's gamble to leave her in this time didn't work nearly as well. Barley two minutes after her third foul, amidst a sequence in which the Fighting Irish collected three offensive rebounds in one possession, Dolson picked up a fourth foul and had to exit.
But what looked like the twist that would settle the game proved not to be fatal. Notre Dame led 41-39 after the free throws that accompanied Dolson's fourth foul. When she returned seven minutes later, the Fighting Irish had expanded the lead only as far as 54-49.
"For her to be out of the game for so much, we were hoping to make more of a run, but we weren't able to, our shots didn't fall," Notre Dame's Natalie Novosel said. "But she was just an unbelievable player in their offense. For us to not be able to get her out of the game, that was a little disappointing."
Dolson finished with 20 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks in 34 minutes, numbers that she would have been hard pressed to top without the fouls.
"I thought Stefanie played great," Auriemma said. "And there was a lot of talk on the bench among the coaching staff about when to bring her in, how long to keep her out. But I felt as long as the game was within reach and it wasn't more than four or five points either way that we could buy some more time for her. And I figured somewhere around the 6-minute mark, 7-minute mark, we'd be good to go."
In the end, it wasn't Dolson's fourth foul that foreshadowed one of the game's true turning points. It was the offensive rebounds that led to the foul. Notre Dame finished with 20 offensive rebounds, none more important than the one Novosel corralled with four seconds on the clock after Diggins missed a driving layup. The Fighting Irish had squandered a six-point lead and allowed the Huskies to make a frantic comeback and take the lead in the final minute. They had failed to handle the defensive pressure they knew so well, but there was something left in the foundation.
All through the season, Notre Dame associate coach Jonathan Tsipis harped on offensive rebounds, made Novosel and others run suicides after practice when they failed to execute in rebounding drills. When it mattered most, she was waiting right where she needed to be to tie the game with four seconds left.
"I knew we had some time left, and I was able to get the rebound. It came right to me," Novosel said. "I didn't know if Sky was going to make it or not, I didn't know if they were going to call a charge or what they were going to do."
It was far from the final turning point. After Hartley hit a 3-pointer to give the Huskies an overtime lead, Mallory hit her aforementioned clutch pair of 3-pointers, including one off a pass from Diggins following her block. Mallory's defense ensured Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis couldn't turn around the game in the second half. Her ability to handle the ball helped Diggins find her stroke en route to 19 points. And when she found herself open twice in overtime behind the 3-point line, she provided the final turning point.
"Brittany does every little thing that she possibly can," Kayla McBride said. "She's been through a lot in her five years here. She knows the game; her basketball IQ is above and beyong anything I've ever seen. She just knows what to do in every situation."
The Fighting Irish didn't get the best of every turn, but they got the best of more of them.
In the final seconds, as Novosel tossed the ball high in the air to run out what remained on the clock, Hayes and McBride followed its path. Even as the final buzzer sounded, their arms and legs collided again and again like a receiver and cornerback tracking a Hail Mary pass in football.
You couldn't fault either one for not trusting that the twists and turns were finally at an end.