HARTFORD, Conn. – The end could not have been more heartbreaking for the Connecticut Huskies.
The final 18.4 seconds of the 2013 Big East women’s tournament championship game Tuesday night at the XL Center will forever be embedded in the minds of coach Geno Auriemma and his players. The trick now will be to forget the 61-59 loss to Notre Dame before the start of the NCAA tournament.
Natalie Achonwa’s layup with 1.8 seconds remaining gave Notre Dame (31-1) its third victory over the Huskies this season and allowed the Irish to celebrate their first Big East women’s basketball championship ever. Achonwa’s heroics came after Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis threw an off-balance pass into the hands of UConn tormentor Skylar Diggins with seven seconds left.
Diggins (12 points, six assists, five steals) drove to the other end – as UConn tried to foul her - until she could dump the ball to Achonwa (six points in 14 minutes), who was wide open in front of the basket.
“What can I say?” Auriemma said. “I feel really bad for these guys. I thought they played an amazing second half. . . . [Notre Dame] deserved to win because they made one more play at the end. One more play than we did.”
And with that one play, UConn’s streak of five consecutive Big East tournament titles ended, UConn’s 17-game tournament winning streak ended, and a streak of 19 straight seasons with either a Big East regular season or tournament championship ended. It was 1993 the last time the Huskies didn’t capture one or the other.
UConn has lost 11 games over the last three seasons and seven of those have been to Notre Dame.
“You can’t be upset and you can’t be sad,” said center Stefanie Dolson, who led UConn with 18 points, 14 rebounds and three assists. “Obviously we’re all going to cry and be upset a little bit. Ultimately we’re just angry and mad at the fact [Notre Dame has defeated us] so much.
“Going into the [NCAA] tournament, we’re just going to go into practice ready to play and get better. I wouldn’t want to be the team to see us there.”
UConn (29-4) trailed 35-26 at halftime but the score was tied at 59 and the Huskies had the ball after Diggins missed a jump shot with 37 seconds remaining. Kelly Faris missed a layup with 23 seconds left but the officials called a timeout to review the play and see if the shot hit the rim. Then UConn called timeout to set up the final play with 18.4 left.
Faris threw a high inbound pass that almost sailed out of bounds, but freshman Breanna Stewart (16 points) made an incredible stretch and catch to keep the ball in play. Stewart passed back to Faris, who drove from the top of the key to the baseline. When Faris could go no further, she passed cross court to Mosqueda-Lewis (8 points on 3 of 12 shooting) in the corner. The play was already going bad, but it was about to get worse.
“I was about to fall out of bounds and so I tried to throw it to someone on my team but Skylar got in the way and intercepted it,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “We thought we fouled her before she got to the basket but I guess the refs thought we didn’t foul her enough. We shouldn’t have put ourselves in a position like that.”
UConn had committed only five fouls in the half, so the Huskies had a foul to give. Bria Hartley, who had been Mosqueda-Lewis’ intended receiver, appeared to foul Diggins at least twice. Auriemma thought it was three times.
“We just tried to not make it look intentional,” he said. “As it turned out, we would have had to tackle her for them to call it, but we tired.
“Actually, we wanted to win without the timeout. The ball hit the rim, but they had to check to see if the ball hit the rim. So they forced us take a timeout when we wanted to keep flying.”
Auriemma said Stewart should have caught the ball, squared up and attacked the basket for the foul.
“She is too young to understand that right now,” he said.
And after the turnover, Dolson did not get back on defense, allowing Achonwa to get back ahead of everyone.
“Before that last play, Skylar said, ‘They’re tired!’ and, in my head, I’ve played four minutes so I’ve got all the energy in the world,” Achonwa said. “I saw three or four running to [Diggins] and as soon as I saw my man weak out, I was the safety. I had to get the basket.”
In addition to all the broken streaks, there were other amazing numbers. There were only 17 free throws attempted the entire game. Notre Dame won without attempting a free throw in the second half.
And UConn was 0-for-5 from three-point range, the first time in 403 games the Huskies were held without a three. The last time it had happened was the 2002 national championship game, an 82-70 victory over Oklahoma. Mosqueda-Lewis, a 50 percent shooter behind the arc this season, didn’t even attempt a three.
“I thought our three-point defense was fantastic,” Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said.
Down 35-26 at halftime, Dolson and Stewart brought the Huskies back as the Irish went cold from the field. Dolson had a big three-point play with 14:31 left, drawing the third foul on Natalie Achonwa. That cut Notre Dame’s lead to four. Stewart then scored UConn’s next six points, tying the game at 41 on a jumper with 11:43 remaining. The score was tied eight times in the second half.
Diggins was held to eight points in the first half but Kayla McBride (23 points) and Jewell Loyd (16 points) combined for 23 points by halftime to pick up the slack. McBride was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Dolson and Stewart made the all-tournament team along with Diggins, Loyd, and Kayla Alexander of Syracuse.
UConn will learn the identity of its first-round NCAA opponent next Monday, then open play in Storrs on March 23. The Huskies will still be a No. 1 seed and should get through Storrs and Bridgeport to reach the Final Four in New Orleans. A rematch with Notre Dame more than likely wouldn’t happen until the national championship game.
“I think history has shown that what happens during the regular season doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s going to happen in the postseason,” Auriemma said. “There is a lot of basketball to be played before there is a chance of a Connecticut-Notre Dame game.
“We’re going to start preparing for round one Saturday and that’s as far as we’re looking forward right now.”