Big East Title On The Line In South Bend
By TOM COYNE
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) _ Beating Connecticut is no longer a rarity for Notre Dame. The Irish are getting to be old hands at this.
“We don’t have to say we think we can win. We know we can because we’ve done it,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
The second-ranked Fighting Irish have beaten the third-ranked Huskies in five of their past six meetings, turning what had been a one-sided series into a legitimate rivalry _ Notre Dame defeated the Huskies in the Final Four the past two seasons.
Their game Monday night will decide whether the Fighting Irish (27-1, 15-0) win the Big East title outright for a second straight season or share the title with the Huskies (27-2, 14-1), who would claim the top seed in the league tournament on a tiebreaker.
“We don’t want to share it,” Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride said.
The finish is a repeat of last season, when the two teams met in Hartford to decide the league title. The Irish won that game 72-59 to claim their first outright league title, but lost eight days later 63-54 when the Huskies won their fifth-straight league tournament championship. Three weeks later, the Irish beat the Huskies 83-75 in the NCAA semifinals. They Irish beat the Huskies again earlier this season, winning 73-72 in Storrs, Conn., to open the Big East season.
The Huskies are 11-0 on the road this season. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said his team heads into the game against Notre Dame and the Big East tournament feeling good about how it’s playing. The Huskies routed South Florida 85-51 on Saturday behind 32 points from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and 25 from Stefanie Dolson.
“Our whole focus was on building some momentum, not just for Monday night, but for next weekend and for beyond,” he said.
The game will be the final home game for Irish guard Skylar Diggins, who has been a key factor in Notre Dame’s dominance over the Huskies the past two seasons. But McGraw said Diggins’ biggest contribution is that she makes the players around her better.
“She’s molded them and led them,” McGraw said. “She’s done things in all areas: offense, defense, passing, leading. There’s not a single area she hasn’t excelled in,” McGraw said.
The Irish tried to remove some of the pressure from Diggins’ final home game by holding senior night Tuesday against Syracuse, a game where the Irish fell behind by 15 before winning. Diggins said playing her final home game in her hometown will be special.
“It’s going to be electric. I think it’s a treat anytime I get to play in front of my friends and my family. I feel like a kid every time I put on that jersey, because I remember sitting in those stands and watching the team play when I was young,” said Diggins, who scored 28 in a 92-57 win over Providence on Saturday.
With a win, the Irish would tie the school record with a 23rd straight victory. It also would be the second time the Irish beat the Huskies three straight. Tennessee is the only other team to accomplish the feat in the past eight seasons.
Connecticut guard Kelly Faris believes the game will come down to a battle of wills.
“We have good players, they have good players,” she said. “We have Xs and Os, they have Xs and Os. It’s not going to necessarily come down to that. It’s going to come down to the hustle plays and we go through that every year. We say that every time, and in the end it does.”
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds contributed from Tampa, Fla., and Pat Eaton-Robb from Providence, R.I.