INDIANAPOLIS – Notre Dame’s streak-breaking ways put the women’s basketball team in the NCAA tournament finals for the first time since the Irish won it all in 2001.
The Irish ended a season of torment by two-time defending champion Connecticut by knocking off the Huskies 72-63 Sunday night in Conseco Fieldhouse.
Notre Dame plays Texas A&M 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.
Notre Dame (31-7) lost its previous three games against UConn (36-2) this season and hadn’t defeated the Huskies since 2005 and had lost 12 in a row coming into Sunday night.
“This team has really grown up since the beginning of the season,” Irish forward Becca Bruszewski said. “Tonight was a night that we played hard for 40 minutes and were focused and composed.”
The Irish reached the Final Four by defeating Tennessee for the first time in program history last Monday in the Dayton Regional finals. Notre Dame was 0-20 against the Volunteers before that win.
It is the first time in NCAA history that a team has defeated both UConn and Tennessee in the same tournament.
“I think this is my week for exorcising demons,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Getting over the hump of some of the best programs in the game is just an incredible victory for our team and our program.”
Irish guard Skylar Diggins, playing in her first Final Four, scored 14 of her 28 points in the first half, and leading scorer Natalie Novosel, who was limited to seven minutes in the first half with foul trouble, scored 18 of her 22 points after halftime.
“It’s pretty high on my list, if not the top,” Diggins said of her performance Sunday.
UConn forward Maya Moore, who went 1 for 7 with an airball in the first nine minutes, finished with 36 points on 14-of-30 shooting.
“We knew she was going to go off, and it was just a matter of kind guarding everybody else,” said Irish guard Brittany Mallory, who returned in the second half after jamming her shoulder near the end of the first half and getting treatment during halftime.
“We played great team defense today, and we couldn’t ask for a better turnout.”
The Irish erased a 34-26 deficit early in the second half after Diggins snapped them out of a 0-for-7 slump with a three-point play when she was fouled hitting a layup three minutes into the half.
Notre Dame outscored UConn 15-4 over the next four minutes to take a 41-38 lead with 13 minutes to play after Diggins completed a second three-point play of the half.
The Irish pushed their lead to 55-47 with 7:27 to play after Brittany Mallory and Natalie Novosel sandwiched a Moore layup with three-pointers.
Notre Dame’s lead ballooned to 61-49 with 5:02 to play, but then Moore made things interesting.
Moore went on a personal 11-2 run to cut the Irish’s lead to 63-60, but Notre Dame responded with a jumper from Novosel than a steal and layup by Diggins to hold a 67-60 lead with 1:35 to play.
And the Irish never looked back.
The Irish, who shot 35 percent in their first three loses to the Huskies, connected on 51.9 percent of their shots Sunday. Devereaux Peters had eight points and seven rebounds for Notre Dame.
Connecticut was held to 42.4 percent shooting, and only Bria Hartley joined Moore in double-digit scoring with 10 points.
Notre Dame outscored UConn 40-24 in the paint, and after losing the rebounding battle 17-15 in the first half, the Irish finished with a 39-27 rebounding edge.
“It was huge,” Peters said of scoring in the paint. “We really focused on the last couple of games, we didn’t shoot very well. We wanted to focus on getting good shots inside.”