Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Guru's College Report: Irish Eyes Smiling Over Big East Title

(Guru's note: You are supposed to be reading this at the all new-look fullcourt.com, which is impressive. But since there are new procedures to file, the Guru has no idea yet if this got to its destination so in the interest of public service you can take a sneak peek here).

By Mel Greenberg

HARTFORD, Conn. – The clock struck midnight about an hour earlier than real time Monday night on the East Coast in lower New England for powerful Connecticut’s run of five regular season Big East titles when No. 3 Notre Dame topped the host No. 4 Huskies 72-59 in the XL Center, the site of next week’s conference tournament.

That is about the only thing left for the Irish (28-2, 15-1 Big East) to conquer in the long-running rivalry between the national powers after Notre Dame made it three straight wins over UConn (26-4, 13-3) beginning with last April’s 72-63 upset in the NCAA national semifinals in Indianapolis.

To hear Notre Dame All-American junior guard Skylar Diggins discuss the Irish emotions after the game ended here in front of a disappointed Huskies-leaning crowd of 15,132, the 74-67 overtime win back in January in South Bend, Ind., was enjoyable but not enough.

Diggins and her teammates still needed to come here in one of the Huskies’ two houses – including the Gampel Pavilion campus arena in Storrs – and walk away with the outright regular season championship the conference coaches predicted for the Irish back in October.

Furthermore there was the desire to win it for Irish coach Muffett McGraw, who like UConn’s Geno Auriemma comes from a Philadelphia-area background.

Though McGraw has had a distinguished career with the Irish, including the 2001 NCAA title and two other trips to the Women’s Final Four, since joining the Big East back in 1995-96 the Irish have come up short to the powerful Huskies numerous times in various phases of their wars in the Big East.

“I think it’s great,” Diggins said after scoring 20 points, one less than the 21 collected by teammate Natalie Novosel. “We came out here and played for ‘coach.’ She deserves it.

“This is something she can add to her repertoire. She is a Hall of Fame coach and this is something she hasn’t accomplished and we wanted to do it for her. At the same time, it’s a pride thing. We wanted to step out of the shadow of UConn,” Diggins continued.

“I don’t know the last time we won a game here. It was a great team effort in a hostile environment where teams can get down quickly. We stayed together. That was the one thing. I think the team did a great job of rallying together and staying focused on getting a big win on the road.”

Notre Dame has won almost everywhere to date in seeking to go further than last season’s NCAA finish when the Irish fell to Texas A&M in the national title game. The Irish lost at No. 1 and unbeaten Baylor in December and recently suffered a conference setback at home against West Virginia.

Kayla McBride shot a sizzling 6-for-9 in scoring 12 points to add to Notre Dame’s total while Deveraux Peters was just short of a double double grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring nine points.

UConn held its own in the first half, trailing 38-35 at the break on the play of Tiffany Hayes’ 18 points – she finished with 22 being held to four the rest of the way – and center Stefanie Dolson’s 12, which became 18 overall when she was just shut down by the Irish defense over the second half. Freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was limited to 10 points.

Connecticut held a slight 51-49 lead with 13:06 left in the game, when Notre Dame, propelled by Diggins, launched a 13-2 run and never was seriously threatened again to the point that Auriemma, uncharacteristically, yanked his starters with 3:16 left to play as Novosel’s three-pointer became the final score on both sides.

While the two teams could meet again in less than a week, the postmortem featured the Notre Dame contingent discussing what went right and Connecticut offering total gloom off of things that went wrong.

The Huskies, in fact in the Big East tournament, will be a three-seed in a tie-break with St. John’s, which shocked UConn back in Storrs on senior night a little over a week ago on a buzzer beater that became the first home loss in a 100 games.

Connecticut has now lost back-to-back home games for the first time since 1993, a dominance that when McGraw was asked to expound on Diggins’ remarks on the pride issue said, “I think everyone is in Connecticut’s shadow.”

But if this keeps up, the Irish will be the ones holding the umbrella in the Big East.

“I was really pleased with our defense,” especially in the second half,” McGraw said. “I thought we really got into the driving lanes a little bit more.”

Notre Dame forced UConn into 18 turnovers and had a lopsided 23-12 advantage in points off of turnovers. The Irish dominated the boards, 42-31, and outscored the Huskies 25-8 in second chance points.

“At halftime we tried to get off and help on the dribble from Hayes a little bit and had some ideas for pressuring the pass to eliminate the ball going into the post so easily,” McGraw said of adjustments made at the break.

“I thought we did that. They had some turnovers in the second half that led to some layups for us and that was a huge momentum shift.”

Novosel echoed McGraw’s remarks about the defense after the half.

“That was a point of emphasis, she said. “We wanted to stop them on defense, not out-score them. We came out with a little more attack mode offensively. One of our keys to the game was to outrebound them, so we tried to attack the offensive pass and outrebound them on every play.”

Meanwhile, Auriemma was in a rare retreat form of speech saying he didn’t care who won the Big East tournament, pointing out that the loss to St. John’s had already sealed Connecticut’s fate in terms of not getting the No. 1 seed, title share or not.

“When you get a team like Notre Dame where Diggins plays well, and Peters plays well and they get a great night from McBride, all of a sudden you just don’t have enough.”

Though Dolson and Auriemma both cited her improved play Monday night, she still said she had enough flaws to make the compliments from her coach a moot point.

“At the end of the day you look at the things you didn’t do,” the sophomore center said. “I didn’t finish at the end of the game with my layups. I didn’t rebound at the end of the game.

“If we are going to win a championship I have to do those things. As well as you think you did there is always things you look back on that you could have done better.”

Dolson was first at a loss to describe the Huskies’ difficulties in the second half but then offered, “They put great pressure on us and we did not fight back.”

Auriemma spoke to the same issue overall.

“We do a lot of things well, but fighting back is not one of them,” he said.

Dolson noted, “Things weren’t going right and we just took it one-on-one to the basket. You can’t be like that and when it happens we have to fight back as a team. The five people out there need to huddle up and know what’s going on and know what we’re running and execute.

“We didn’t do that and we didn’t play Connecticut basketball.”

Hayes spoke of the frustration over the Huskies’ failure to improve since the January loss at Notre Dame, something that hasn’t happened for more than a decade in terms of getting better when March Madness approaches.

“That’s supposed to be over in December, and it’s the end of February now,” Hayes said as the end of her collegiate career looms ahead. “If we want to be a Final Four team we can’t be doing that in February. It’s upsetting to see coming from everybody, myself included.”

Notre Dame and Connecticut as top four seeds in the Big East tournament, which begins Friday, have double byes, as does second-seeded St. John’s and fourth-seeded Georgetown.

The Irish on Sunday will play the survivor of two earlier rounds when ninth-seeded South Florida meets 16th-seeded Pittsburgh on Friday with the winner advancing on Saturday against eighth-seeded DePaul.

Connecticut on Sunday will meet either sixth-seeded Rutgers, which has a first-round bye, or No. 11 Cincinnati or No. 14 Marquette.

-- Mel

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