For UConn, it was another bitter defeat a the hands of its No. 1 nemesis. For Notre Dame, it was as if a large monkey had jumped off its back. For basketball fans, it was an amazing game played in an energized environment between the Nos. 2 and 3 ranked teams in the country—and a resounding affirmation that women's basketball has arrived as a prime-time sport on the college scene.
And so it was that a layup by Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa with two seconds remaining in regulation led the Irish to a hard-fought 61-59 win over the Huskies before 9,085 fans at the XL Center in what will forevermore be remembered as the swan song for The Big East—at least as we have come to know (and love) it.
This was the third meeting this season between the arch-rivals—and the third straight win by the Irish. Of the three, two were by two points or less, and the third was a triple-overtime win in South Bend. This one was a particularly hard pill or the Husky faithful to swallow because the game was theirs to win.
After clawing back from a 13-point first-half deficit—Notre Dame held a 35-26 advantage at intermission—the Huskies came all the way back, tying the game at 39 apiece on two free throws by Breanna Stewart with 12:34 remaining in regulation.
And from that point on, this game was your prototypical horse race with one team taking the lead by a head followed by the other team catching up, taking a minimal lead, then falling back. The Irish threatened to pull away when a jumper by Kayla McBride, who led all scorers with 23 points, off a gorgeous feed from Jewell Lloyd, opened up a six-point lead, 59-53, with 2:56 left on the clock. The Huskies, of course, had other ideas.
Six unanswered points capped by a layup from 6-5 sophomore center Stefanie Dolson, who led the Huskies in scoring with 18 points, off a pass from super soph Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (16 points) knotted the score for the seventh time in the second half, with just 59 seconds left to play. Could another overtime be in the offing?
A miss by Notre Dame's All-American Skylar Diggins (19 points) that was gathered by KML put the ball in the Huskies' hands with 37 seconds remaining. And that's when the drama got turned up just a notch.
Kelly Faris missed a layup, but the senior guard from Plainfield, Ind., quickly redeemed herself with an offensive rebound. After Geno Auriemma called time-out with 18 ticks left, it was time for the cream to rise to the top. With UConn holding their fate in their own hands, Diggins promptly picked KML's pocket, raced down court, and found Achonwa for an easy layup with 2 seconds left in the game, taking the air—literally—out of the XL Center crowd.
In the end, the best team won. The Irish had proven for the third time that they were the Huskies' masters—albeit by the narrowest of margins.
“What can I say? I feel really bad for these guys,” said a subdued Auriemma immediately after the game. “They played an amazing second half and we put ourselves in a big hole in the first half. [Notre Dame] deserved to win because they made one more play at the end than we did.”
Perhaps the most telling statistic was the fact that the Huskies were 0-for-5 from beyond the arc—the fist time since the 2002 National Championship Game vs. Oklahoma that the Huskies hadn't nailed a trey.
“For us to go 0-for-[whatever]... I never think we're going to do that,” continued Auriemma. "I think we'll make our share, and we always do.”
Well, make that almost always.
With Irish headed for the ACC, the Huskies will be holding fort in the “Big Least” (the seven Catholic schools have withdrawn from the conference starting next year, but then turned around and negotiated keeping naming rights for the conference, if that makes any sense at all). For now, that is.
No one expects UConn to stand pat, trying to build passionate rivalries with the likes of Memphis, Temple, Central Florida, Houston and SMU. Persistent rumors abound that Connecticut will inevitably end up with many of its former Big East brethren in the ACC. Those rumors are consistently shot down by all parties concerned, which actually lends credence to their existence.
But even if the Huskies don't gravitate toward the ACC in 2014, this might not be the final meeting between these two teams this season. Depending how the brackets shake out—both UConn and Notre Dame will most certainly be No. 1 seeds in their respective regions—they may actually end up meeting for a fourth time this season in the Final Four in New Orleans.
Can the Irish actually go 4-for-4? More to the point, can a team as solid as UConn, directed by a Hall-of-Fame coach, fall to the same team four times in the same season?
Highly improbable. But certainly not impossible. Right now, the Huskies, having lost the Big East title for the first time since 2004, have but remain undaunted on their ultimate goal: Their eighth national championship.
“At this point this program is all about how you respond and that's what coach teaches us how to do,” said Faris, one of three seniors on the team. One player conspicuously missing from last night's game was Caroline Doty, a healthy scratch for the first time in her four-year career.
“We haven't responded the way we need to, the way the program is used to,” continued Faris. “That's why we are sitting where we're at right now. This is our last chance right now to respond in the right way. This is our last opportunity to step up and make something of it.”
Meaning a trip to New Orleans? In order to get to New Orleans, the Huskies will have to emerge victorious in Bridgeport, where one Regional will be held at the Webster Bank Arena from March 30-April 1. That would be the last step before the Final Four.
Stay tuned, folks.