Irish fight to finish, beat UConn to claim Big East title

A devastated UConn bench reacts Tuesday night to the team's loss to Notre Dame in the Big East Championship final at the XL Center in Hartford. The score was tied when, in the last play of the game, with 1.8 seconds remaining, Notre Dame scored to win its first championship in program history.
A devastated UConn bench reacts Tuesday night to the team's loss to Notre Dame in the Big East Championship final at the XL Center in Hartford. The score was tied when, in the last play of the game, with 1.8 seconds remaining, Notre Dame scored to win its first championship in program history. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Hartford - It was surreal to the senses. Could this possibly have happened again? To the team that's usually a surer bet than Rivera in the ninth?

To the eyes: Another UConn turnover in the closing seconds, another Notre Dame victory, another jarring piece of reality that defied explanation.

To the ears: The chants of "We are ND" and "this is our house" from the Notre Dame loyalists, whose echoes pierced the stunned XL Center Tuesday night.

Meet the new loss, same as the old loss.

And the Fighting Irish, champions of the Big East regular season, are champions of the Big East tournament, too.

Notre Dame 61, UConn 59.

The Huskies, who have lost four straight and seven of eight against the program they once dominated, committed four turnovers in the final 3:37. And still - still - overcame a 59-53 deficit and had the ball in a tie game with 18.4 seconds left.

"I feel really bad for these guys," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, alluding to his forlorn players, who shared the podium with him at the postgame news conference. "I thought they played an amazing second half. We put ourselves in a big hole in the first half (trailing by as many as 13) and in the second half we played great.

"They deserved to win," Auriemma said of the Irish, "because they made one more play at the end than we did."

The play at the end came with the score tied. UConn had the ball with 18.4 seconds remaining and came out of a timeout. The Huskies were in the same predicament nine days ago at Notre Dame and turned it over.

They turned it over again.

Kelly Faris lobbed an inbounds pass that Breanna Stewart barely caught. Stewart retreated once she gathered herself and passed to Faris, who drove on the right wing to the baseline. Faris, who nearly stepped on the end line, passed to Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis, who was pinned in the corner of the opposite baseline.

Mosqueda-Lewis made an off-balance pass in the direction of Bria Hartley, like a quarterback throwing it up under duress. And Skylar Diggins beat Hartley to the spot, intercepting the pass.

Diggins advanced the ball quickly and found Natalie Achonwa, whose layup with 1.8 seconds left gave the Irish (31-1) the program's first league tournament title.

Auriemma said they'd worked on the final play Tuesday morning at shootaround, consistently finding Stewart on the lob for a layup or Mosqueda-Lewis open for a jumper.

"We got Stewie for a layup on the lob (at shootaround) and Kelly was looking for that. Stewie made a great catch," Auriemma said. "Next time in that situation, she's going to square up and attack the basket and get fouled. She's too young to understand that right now.

"When Stewie caught it, I thought we were in great shape," Auriemma said. "I probably should have called timeout when Stewie dribbled it out and passed it. I take responsibility for that one."

Still, the Huskies had a foul to give and could have fouled Diggins, at least making Notre Dame inbound. And it's not like they didn't try.

Hartley hacked at Diggins as they ran up the floor.

"I knew we had a foul to give," Hartley said. "I was trying to foul her. The refs didn't call it, so it's not a foul. She made a good play."

Diggins: "I think they thought the foul was coming and I'm glad they let it go."

Auriemma: "I think we fouled her three times. And it took a long time for them not to call fouls on us. They picked the worst time. We fouled her three times, but tried not to make it look intentional. As it turned out, we would have had to tackle her. We knew we had a foul to give. We saved it to the end. But like so many of these games, it wasn't meant to be."

Kayla McBride, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, led the Irish with 23 points. Jewell Loyd had 16 and Diggins had 12 on 5-for-15 shooting.

"Kayla McBride made big shot after big shot," Auriemma said, "and not easy ones either."

Stefanie Dolson led UConn with 18 points and Stewart had 16. It was the first game since the 2002 national championship game that UConn failed to make a 3-point shot.

The Huskies trailed 35-22 late in the first half, forcing the furious second-half rally.

"I was speechless on the bench. I mean I can't even tell you what was going through my mind. I can't think of any scenario that I thought we would play that first half the way we played it," Auriemma said. "I wasn't prepared for that and neither were any of the other coaches. I can't explain it. I can't. I have no idea what the collective mindset of our team was on the floor."

Later, Auriemma said, "Maybe we as a team have to learn how to handle ourselves in those situations on a regular basis."

m.dimauro@theday.com

UConn's Bria Hartley, left, and Kelly Faris, center, chase Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins after a Diggins steal during Tuesday night's Big East Conference tournament championship game at the XL Center in Hartford. Notre Dame scored the game-winning basket with 1.8 seconds left to beat the Huskies 61-59, the first league tournament title in history for the Fighting Irish.
UConn's Bria Hartley, left, and Kelly Faris, center, chase Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins after a Diggins steal during Tuesday night's Big East Conference tournament championship game at the XL Center in Hartford. Notre Dame scored the game-winning basket with 1.8 seconds left to beat the Huskies 61-59, the first league tournament title in history for the Fighting Irish. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
UConn's Breanna Stewart, center, goes up for a shot against the defense of Notre Dame's Ariel Braker, left, and Markisha Wright during Tuesday's night's Big East tournament championship at the XL Center in Hartford. Stewart finished with 16 points in the 61-59 loss to Notre Dame.
UConn's Breanna Stewart, center, goes up for a shot against the defense of Notre Dame's Ariel Braker, left, and Markisha Wright during Tuesday's night's Big East tournament championship at the XL Center in Hartford. Stewart finished with 16 points in the 61-59 loss to Notre Dame. Dana JeNsen/The Day Buy Photo
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