DAYTON, Ohio — The wait was certainly worth it for Notre Dame.
Skylar Diggins scored 24 points and the second-seeded Fighting Irish made up for 28 years of beatings at the hands of Tennessee, upsetting the top-seeded Lady Vols 73-59 Monday night to earn a spot in the Final Four.
The Fighting Irish (30-7) came in 0-20 all-time against the Lady Vols. But the operative number on this night was 3-0—Notre Dame’s record in regional championship games. The Irish are headed to the Final Four for the first time since 2001, when they won the national championship.
Tennessee was the first No. 1 seed in the tournament to lose.
Natalie Novosel added 17 points and Becca Bruszewski—who didn’t practice Sunday and was listed as questionable to even play with a knee injury—had 13 for the Fighting Irish. Brittany Mallory chipped in with 10.
Notre Dame advanced to play the winner of Tuesday’s game between top-ranked Connecticut (35-1) and second-seeded Duke (32-3).
Taber Spani and Shekinna Stricklen had 13 points for the Lady Vols (34-3). Glory Johnson added 12.
“I’m so excited, I’m out of breath,” said Diggins, selected as the regional’s most outstanding player.
It was a watershed win after years of losing—sometimes close, usually not so close—to mighty Tennessee. The day before the game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her players were clearly upset to be reminded about their long drought against the Lady Vols.
It was also another disappointing end for the Lady Vols, who are accustomed to muscling their way into the national title picture under coach Pat Summitt.
Freshman Meighan Simmons, their leading scorer at 13.8 points a game, was saddled with foul trouble and was scoreless until the waning minutes, finishing with two points. Senior Angie Bjorklund, the program’s all-time 3-point shooter and this season’s fourth-leading scorer at 11 points a game, didn’t score in the semifinal win against Ohio State and had only had one point against Notre Dame.
Trouble seemed to be brewing for the Lady Vols all week. The players had a team meeting after a narrow win in the second round. Then Summitt had to reach back for a fiery halftime speech to inspire the team to overcome Ohio State in the regional semifinals.
Tennessee, down five at the half, picked up two quick baskets by Stricklen only to have the Fighting Irish score on five of their next six possessions. Diggins was the culprit almost every time, hitting two 3s and a long jumper and also assisting on Bruszewski’s short shot and also on Novosel’s spinning reverse layup.
That swelled the lead to 41-32—and suddenly that sea of orange filling up much of the University of Dayton Arena began to get nervous.
With Spani twice hitting 3s, the Lady Vols remained in contact, but Diggins came up with big plays time and time again. She drove the lane through heavy traffic and flipped in a lefty layup with 11:16 left to keep Notre Dame in charge, 49-41.
The lead never dropped below six points again.
During one physical exchange, Tennessee’s Kelley Cain was fouled by Bruszewski, but Cain was called for a technical.
That seemed to fire up the Fighting Irish. After Natalie Novosel hit both technical shots, and Cain hit only one of her free throws, the Irish pulled away. First Diggins drilled a high arching 3 from the right wing. After a Tennessee miss, the Lady Vols pressed fullcourt and Notre Dame threw a long inbounds pass to Novosel, who drove the length of the court and then fed Devereaux Peters for a bucket.
Mallory then picked up a steal and Peters slipped behind the Tennessee defense to score again, muscling in a shot off an alley-oop pass from Diggins— for a 60-48 lead.
The teams came in with almost identical numbers—averaging around 79 points a game and allowing around 55. They were evenly matched in most regards. Each team also had seven players averaging at least seven points a game.
But the all-time series was anything but even. Since their first meeting in 1983, Tennessee had dominated,including three wins in the NCAA tournament.
The last time the two teams had met, in the 2008 NCAA tournament, Tennessee won 74-64 in Oklahoma City in the regional semis.
But not this time.