Notre Dame women's basketball: Tough way to end a stellar career
NEW ORLEANS -- So close. So painfully close.
When Skylar Diggins finally puts her participation in her third straight NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in perspective, the Notre Dame senior and South Bend’s finest will measure it in regret.
Sunday night, the regret level was off the charts.
Diggins has been the face of the game for the past two years. Late in Sunday’s 83-65 semifinal loss to Connecticut, she would have traded every one of her 300,000-plus Twitter followers, all her TV appearances, and each celebrity shout-out to avoid the painful regret that will taint her legacy.
Ruth Riley didn’t have the attention. But she has a title.
Seconds after the final buzzer, Diggins said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma addressed that very subject in a private moment captured by national TV.
“(Auriemma) said, ‘Don’t let this game define my legacy,’” Diggins said. “He told me I’ve done more for the sport than people who have won four national championships. He told me I’ve done a lot for the game of basketball and that I’ve had a great career.”
When teammate Kayla McBride, who shared the post-game podium with Diggins, broke into tears and was unable to answer a question, Diggins became the leader again, put on the poker face, and took over.
After the questions had subsided, Diggins had her own statement.
At least, she tried.
“I want to thank all the fans and the city of South Bend (her voice cracked, tears began) for the support,” Diggins said.
She had more, but couldn’t do it.
“Thank you, thank you,” was all she could get out.
Diggins shot just 3-of-15 (20 percent) and scored 10 points, with eight assists and six turnovers.
However, history shows that she has struggled against UConn all season. In those four games, she connected on 23 of 76 shots (31 percent).
This was Notre Dame’s championship to lose.
And, the Irish did.
They had beaten Connecticut three times previously this year. So what?
They had beaten Louisville, the other semifinal winner, twice by a combined 53 points.
Fact is, Notre Dame panicked.
A group of sensational players stopped playing like a team for a good chunk of the game. So many times all season, when one struggled, the Irish were so talented that someone would surely pick up the slack.
Too much slack Sunday. They all struggled. The team concept left the building and Connecticut had the edge.
Identity went by the wayside.
Midway through the second half, with the Irish down by 10, Diggins, Jewell Loyd and McBride — Notre Dame’s offensive triumvirate — were a combined 9-of-37. They finished 13-of-52 (25 percent).
It was downright painful to watch. Diggins had an uncharacteristically poor floor game. Most of the way, she had more turnovers than assists, although she finished with six turnovers to go along with eight assists.
And plenty of regrets.
Starting with the football BCS National Championship debacle in January, Notre Dame teams have had their share of clunkers.
Men’s basketball: Iowa State. Hockey: St. Cloud State. Women’s basketball: Connecticut.
Just when things are looking better... Maybe ... Finally...
Aw, it can’t happen again, can it?
The feeling leaving New Orleans was the same as it was leaving Miami three months ago. Surprise. Both the Irish football and women’s basketball teams seemed immune to such a poor performance. Bullet-proof, almost.
Championship-caliber play was camouflaged by a bevy of bricks tossed up by both teams in the first half.
At one point, about midway through the first 20 minutes, Notre Dame was shooting 2-of-24 — and held a 10-8 lead.
Maybe it was jitters. Maybe it was the magnitude of the ultimate prize. Maybe it was the competition.
Whatever the case, it wasn’t pretty.
By the time halftime arrived, Notre Dame had hit just 9-of-38 shots (24 percent), even worse than the 28 percent the Irish shot in the first half against Duke (which McGraw called their “worst half of the season.”).
Time to re-think that opinion.
Add in nine turnovers and the frustration was obvious.
The only redeeming factor was 11-of-12 from the free-throw line.
Connecticut freshman Breanna Stewart, with a career-high 29 points, grew up right before a national television audience.
A brief flurry with a couple minutes left in the half put UConn up six. A 3-pointer by Kelly Faris, a bucket by Bria Hartley, a 3-pointer by Stewart, and an inside move and basket by Faris put the Huskies on top by double digits, 39-29.
Stewart may have been the most significant difference between Sunday night and the first three outings against Notre Dame. The 6-foot-4 freshman post was much more active running the floor than she had been. In the three previous games against the Irish, Stewart had a collective 31 points and 17 rebounds.
She dished out her share of regret.