Notre Dame was able to knock Connecticut out of the NCAA women's basketball tournament with a 72-63 victory thanks to a strong one-two guard punch Sunday night in Conseco Fieldhouse.
Skylar Diggins led the way by scoring 14 points in each half to finish with a season-high 28 points, and Natalie Novosel scored 18 of her 22 points in the second half.
"I think Skylar at the beginning really kept us in the game. We weren't really playing our game and let UConn dictate the game for us," Novosel said. "In the second half, I was just really frustrated that I didn't contribute in the first half. I just came out being really aggressive. We got them on their heels a little bit with foul trouble, we were in the double bonus pretty early on, and we were able to take advantage of that."
Notre Dame (31-7) will play Texas A&M (32-5) for the title at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Aggies pulled off the first upset of the night by knocking off last year's national runner-up Stanford 63-62.
Novosel entered the game as Notre Dame's leading scorer, averaging 14.9 points per game.
But the junior was limited to four points in just seven minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls in the game's opening three minutes.
"She got into early foul trouble, and that definitely made her tentative," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "She didn't want to drive the ball, and that's a big part of her game. She came out in the second half determined to contribute. I think that was the biggest thing. She wanted to score.
"We ran a bunch of stuff for her to get the ball. She and Skylar both shot it extremely well."
Notre Dame trailed Connecticut 32-26 in the first half, but after falling behind by eight 2 minutes into the second half, the Irish outscored the Huskies 46-34 the rest of the way.
"The key difference was keeping our composure," Diggins said. "In the first half, I don't think we executed the offense too well. I put that on me, I was really upset at halftime. We came out and said we were going to execute.
"In the front of our minds were those three loses. I just wanted to make sure I stayed poised. I wanted to be the voice of calm, even though some of the time I was pretending. Sometimes I was real nervous and they thought I was calm. As long as they can look to me and say, 'Sky's calm. She's good,' and be the point guard and put everybody in the right position."
Notre Dame's victory over UConn continued a trend of slaying past demons for the program.
The Irish had lost their last 12 games to the Huskies, including all three previous meetings this season. Notre Dame's last win over Connecticut was in 2005, and it is 5-28 all-time against the Huskies.
Just to get to the national semifinals, the Irish defeated Tennessee for the first time in program history. Notre Dame topped the Volunteers 73-59 in the Dayton Regional finals last Monday to improve to 1-20 all-time against Tennessee.
"That's just a great feeling," Irish guard Brittany Mallory said. "The record from 0-20 against Tennessee, yeah that was hard, but none of us had experienced that. This team has lost to Connecticut all four years we've been here. For the seniors, we haven't beaten them once, and to beat them in the semifinals to get to the national championship is something I don't think any of us will ever forget."
The best exits
UConn senior Maya Moore experienced something she hasn't since her freshman season, ending the year not as the champion.
Moore had helped the Huskies win the last two national titles, and the three-time Wade Trophy winner did all she could to help her team reach a third straight title game.
After starting the night 1 of 7 from the floor in the first nine minutes, Moore closed the first half with 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
She finished the game with 36 points on 14-of-30 shooting.
"I know how difficult it is for Maya and for (UConn senior guard Lorin Dixon)," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. "… What Maya and Lorin experienced in the two years between their loss in the Final Four and the loss tonight is what I'm going to choose to focus on when I think about those two, especially Maya.
"I'm going to think more about the best player in the history of the Big East and maybe the best student-athlete in the history of college basketball. And I'm not going to let her be defined by what happened tonight."