Bitter pill to swallow
Irish leave Indy disappointed, motivated for next season
INDIANAPOLIS -- It seemed that fate had already chosen the winner of Tuesday night’s Notre Dame-Texas A&M title game. The Irish were playing in their home state of Indiana just three hours from their South Bend campus. Indianapolis’ Conseco Fieldhouse was filled with green shirts, fans bursting with Irish pride.
Sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins, a South Bend native, was living out her dream as she hoped to lead her team to a national championship like she watched former point guard and current UND assistant coach Niele Ivey do in 2001.
Even the confetti that fell from the rafters to celebrate the winner was Notre Dame colors … green, gold and blue.
The set up was perfect for a storybook ending. But Texas A&M changed the script and took the NCAA trophy back to College Station as the Aggies won their first women’s basketball championship 76-70.
“I’m disappointed,” Diggins said. “Obviously, we’re in Indiana and we wanted to win.”
Diggins finished the game with 23 points and four steals, but committed six turnovers forced by the Aggies’ pressure defense.
“We didn’t handle the pressure,” Diggins said. “I don’t know if it was nerves or what. We didn’t handle the ball. We didn’t execute our offense. They’re a great team and one of the best defensive teams in the country, and we did a poor job handling it.”
The Irish were down 13 points with 9:52 before coming back to take a 35-33 lead at the half. Notre Dame built on that momentum, going on a 7-0 run after the break, and taking their largest lead of the game, 42-35, at the 17:47 mark.
But Texas A&M’s Tara White and Danielle Adams took over from there, combining for 32 points in the second half as the Aggies shot 68 percent from the floor after the break. Texas A&M went on a 9-0 run to take a 50-48 lead with 13:39 remaining in the contest.
“We couldn’t defend them,” junior forward Devereux Peters said. “White and Adams had great games. We couldn’t stop them.”
But the resilient Irish would not go away, going up by one with 8:59, and then getting down by five before Diggins hit a jumper to tie the game at 66 with 3:56 left heading into a media timeout before Adams and White served up their knockout punches.
“We got back on our heels a little bit and got in foul trouble,” guard Natalie Novosel said. “They just kept pounding it into the post, and we didn’t have an answer.”
Adams came out of the timeout and scored four points on two consecutive layups, putting the Aggies up 70-66 as they took the lead for good. Seconds later, White threw the final blow, burying a three-pointer off a Sydney Colson inbounds pass with just two ticks left on the shot clock. The Aggies had a 73-68 advantage with 1:07 left in the game.
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“That was a knife right in my heart,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “That was the game. The disappointing part was with two seconds left on the shot clock we didn’t get the rebound. That cost us the game. It was amazing shot on White’s part.”
The Irish may not have experienced the ending they were hoping for, but no one will be surprised if they are playing for another title in Denver at the 2012 Women’s Final Four. Notre Dame loses just one player to graduation – senior Becca Bruszewski.
“We have everyone else coming back,” McGraw said. “We have a young team and a lot of people with a lot of experience coming back.”
Although the disappointment of not raising a trophy over their heads on Tuesday night will stay with the Irish for a while, it will undoubtedly fuel the squad, especially Diggins, who missed a chance at winning in her home state.
“She will spend the entire summer thinking about this game and that is probably a good thing for us,” McGraw said. “You lose that last game and get motivated to come back and work a little harder and make sure it doesn’t happen again. She had a great tournament, but there are obviously some things she wants to change at the end.”
Diggins had four 20-point games in the NCAA tournament, including in the each of the last three.
“She really stepped up her game in the NCAA tournament especially as the games went on,” McGraw said. “I think she gave herself a big shot of credibility for next year as one of the best players in the Big East, and one of the top players at the country, particularly at the guard spot. It was really fabulous end to her season. She really figured out how she could score and how she could lead us, and I’m really looking forward to the next two years.”
• Notre Dame is just the third school in history to play the championship game in its home state, joining Stanford (1992 in Los Angeles) and USC (1984 in Los Angeles). Those teams are a combined 2-1 in title games.
• With 23 points, Skylar Diggins has 51 points in the Final Four, tied for the sixth-most combined in a single Final Four.
• The combined point differential in this year’s Final Four was 16 – the fewest of any Final Four in history. This also marks just the second time in Final Four history that all three games have been decided by single digits. The only other time it happened was 1991 when Tennessee defeated Stanford, 68-60, and Virginia defeated Connecticut, 61-55, in the National Semifinals; and the Lady Vols downed the Cavaliers, 70-67 in OT in the title game.