Published March 05. 2013 4:00AM
South Bend, Ind. — By the third overtime Monday night, the UConn Huskies were left to lean wearily against each other, exhausted, exasperated. So many chances. So many chances hijacked by 35 turnovers and a clinking, clanking collection of missed free throws.
So many chances.
And then the indignity of watching your newest and best rival celebrate the Big East regular season championship on your watch.
Fans and pundits will celebrate the passions of Notre Dame 96, Connecticut 87 in three overtimes before a howling sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion. But the Huskies' plane ride home was an exercise in lament. Wouldas, couldas, shouldas.
The Irish (28-1, 16-0) earned the top seed in the weekend's Big East tournament at the XL Center. UConn (27-3, 14-2) will be the No. 2 seed and play at 6 p.m. Sunday in the quarterfinals.
"So many times, these games come down to little things that need to be done at the right time," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We couldn't finish it off."
Not at the end of regulation, when UConn had the ball and a one-point lead, 32.5 seconds away. And then who could have explained Stefanie Dolson's fifth foul, a moving screen 80 feet from the basket?
Who would have expected Bria Hartley's fifth foul to come seconds later?
And then with the game tied and the Huskies preparing to take the last shot, who would have believed Caroline Doty, a fifth-year senior, would fail to call timeout as she was about to be tied up, giving Notre Dame possession?
They couldn't finish it off in the first overtime, squandering a 70-64 lead with 2:41 remaining. Breanna Stewart (twice) and Kelly Faris missed the front end of one-and-ones, giving the Irish hope.
"We were done," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said after the game.
Still UConn, even going 1-for-5 from the line in the first overtime, had a 71-68 lead in the closing seconds. Notre Dame, 0-for-10 from three-point range to that point, needed a three to tie. Auriemma thought about fouling to prevent the attempt.
The strategy: Do not allow Skylar Diggins to shoot. The Huskies double teamed her. But left Kayla McBride, who killed them earlier this season in Storrs, yawningly open.
"I never thought we'd let (McBride) walk up to the three-point line and watch her shoot it," Auriemma said. "It's been that kind of year. I've seen things I've never seen before."
The Huskies had an 80-75 lead with 2:23 left in the second overtime, too. But two offensive fouls in the final minute led to the third overtime.
And that was where the Irish won the title, using a 10-0 run. McBride had long since fouled out with 26 points.
"We're the Fighting Irish for a reason," Diggins said.
Diggins, playing her last home game, finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and eight turnovers on 11 for 31 shooting. Natalie Achonwa had 17 points and little-used senior Kaila Turner had seven, including the game-tying jumper with 45 seconds left in the second overtime.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led Connecticut with 26 points, despite going more than 15 minutes without a point. Faris had 21 and 13 rebounds, Morgan Tuck scored 11 (four big points in the first overtime) and Hartley had 10.
The most numbing stat line of the night, however, belonged to Dolson, who earned a triple-double before fouling out: 12 points, 11 rebounds, 11 turnovers.
Of UConn's 35 turnovers, five happened in the third overtime.
When asked to explain the turnovers, Auriemma said, "I guess it means we're not any good."
Notre Dame, which won its second straight Big East regular season title, defeated UConn for the sixth time in the last seven games. It was also the third straight time Notre Dame has defeated UConn by rallying from behind in the final minute.
"This rivalry with Connecticut," McGraw said, "is the best in the country."
They may do it again a week from today in the Big East tournament final, too.