UConn women surprise Irish and win fifth straight Big East title
Hartford - It was with a 3-pointer by UConn's Kelly Faris in the waning minutes Tuesday night that a week's worth of misery evaporated and the Huskies could finally breathe again.
It was a 3-pointer that gave the UConn a nine-point lead with three minutes to play and infused the Huskies with a sense of accomplishment they hadn't felt of late, as just eight days ago they watched Notre Dame carry off the Big East Conference regular-season championship and all its hosannas.
Then came Tuesday, when UConn, relegated to the third seed in the Big East tournament, vanquished big, bad Notre Dame, the top seed, 63-54, and broke a three-game winning streak against the Fighting Irish dating back to last season's Final Four. It was UConn's fifth straight Big East tournament title and 18th overall.
"I know my players are exhausted and they should be," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They're a little bit more grown up than they were last week. Now they found out what it could be like and I'm thrilled for them.
"The intangible stuff is even more important (than the championship trophy)."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led the way with 19 points and eight rebounds and was the first UConn freshman since Diana Taurasi in 2001 to be named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player in a game played before 9,227 fans at the XL Center.
Bria Hartley added 18 points, seven rebounds and four steals and, along with Stefanie Dolson (nine rebounds), was named to the All-Tournament Team.
It was the 19th straight season that UConn has won either the Big East regular-season or tournament title and the 800th career win for Auriemma, the fastest Division I coach to that milestone. UConn (29-4) moved to 6-0 against Notre Dame in Big East championship games.
And that was after UConn lost a 10-point lead in the first half, trailed, then fought back, something Auriemma said a week ago he wasn't convinced his team could do.
UConn lost in the national semifinal to Notre Dame last year, then got swept by the Irish in the regular season this year, falling 74-67 in overtime at Notre Dame on Jan. 7 and 72-59 at the XL Center on Feb. 27, the game which gave Notre Dame the Big East crown.
"I think it proved that we had some fight," said Hartley, a sophomore. "Every time we go out on the court … we're going to fight to the end no matter what happens. Tonight, no matter what we did, no matter if Notre Dame went on a run or anything, we made sure we came back and made plays."
The first half started out promising for UConn, which built a 27-17 lead with 8:10 remaining on a drive down the middle by Mosqueda-Lewis. The Huskies didn't score again until the 2:43 mark on a shot by Tiffany Hayes, though, and Notre Dame outscored UConn 13-4 to end the half, pulling within 31-30.
Notre Dame quickly wrestled the lead from UConn in the second half, leading 36-33 on a fast break layup by Devereaux Peters. But Mosqueda-Lewis sprung to life for two straight baskets and Hartley hit three shots in a row as the Huskies sprinted back in front, 43-37.
Notre Dame pulled within three on a 3-pointer by Kayla McBride (46-43), but Mosqueda-Lewis came up with an offensive rebound for a basket and Hartley hit a layup all alone on the front of the fast break on a deft pass by Caroline Doty to push the lead back to seven (50-43).
Faris' second 3-pointer of the half with 3:01 left gave UConn an insurmountable 55-46 lead.
"We won here (last) Monday," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of what it would take to finally beat UConn for a Big East tournament title. "So I don't think we had to do anything different. I think they outplayed us.
"I think we have to battle our own emotion. I don't think we handled it as well as we have all year."
UConn's Hartley said the team had a couple days off following last week's loss to Notre Dame (30-3) and when the Huskies reconvened it was Faris who spoke, telling the team each person had to change, to do something different.
"We had a great practice and we just kind of built it from there," Hartley said. "Even when we got down to Notre Dame, we pushed back. I just think our team's moving in the right direction."