Dishin on the Final Four: Mallory leads the way to the finals for the Irish
Facing each other four times in one season is too much. However, as long as there are conference tournaments, this problem will exist.
Connecticut and Notre Dame faced off for the fourth time this year, and the eighth time in two years, Sunday night, in the first game of the NCAA Final Four. The two teams had no surprises for each other. It would be a matter of execution, adjusting to the situation and the referees, and composure. In a battle of wills between two great rivals, the Irish won 83-75 in overtime in front of 19,028.
So when the game started and Connecticut went right to center Stefanie Dolson, it was no surprise. Dolson has played exceptionally well of late, both scoring and dishing from the high post. At the first media timeout, Dolson already had eight points, and six shot attempts.
UConn tried to get the ball out of the hands of Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel from the beginning and Notre Dame was forced to try to get Brittany Mallory shots, and not try to attack Dolson on that end of the court. An active Devereaux Peters, found her way to the ball in the paint for four early points.
Diggins tried to be aggressive right from the start, much as she was against Maryland, but it wasn’t until nearly eight minutes were gone in the game before a shot fell for the All-American.
On the other side of the early point guard battle, Bria Hartley, also named WBCA Coaches’ All-American continued her strong shooting from the regional finals with two three pointers, as the Huskies opened up an 18-13 lead at the 11:50 media timeout. UConn’s patient offensive execution had the Huskies shooting 54 percent at that point, compared to a rushing Irish team shooting 36 percent.
Both teams ran their sets, applied pressure, and got out on the break when possible; in other words, a typical UConn versus Notre Dame game. Back and forth they went, exchanging baskets and turnovers, rebounds and fouls. The Huskies had a narrow four point lead at the seven minute media timeout. To illustrate how close it was, both teams had eleven rebounds and seven turnovers. Perhaps most importantly, the referees were letting them play. Each team only had three fouls
Interestingly, with all the talk about how altitude might have an impact on the short bench of Connecticut, it was the Huskies who went to Kiah Stokes as well as Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis off the bench while Notre Dame only used six players, with Natalie Achonwa the one substitute.
Two teams with four guard lineups had the posts dominating the offense, with Dolson scoring twelve of the first 30 points for UConn and Peters eight of the 24 points scored by the Irish, until the guards warmed up, and the referees began to get involved. Kelly Faris committed her second foul, fouled by Stokes’ second that put Natalie Novosel on the line. She hit foul shots, and Diggins hit two quick shots in a row to cut the UConn lead to 32-29, when Dolson was called for her second foul, putting her on the bench.
When Diggins was called for a questionable offensive foul, UConn could have extended the lead to five, but a great defensive play by Peters led to a tremendous buzzer beater by Kayla McBride to send the Irish to the locker room down only three, 36-33.
Both teams had a lot to feel positive about at the half. For Connecticut, obviously the score, but also they were executing and shooting 55 percent. Notre Dame had to be pleased with the 19-14 edge in rebounding; the only time UConn beat the Irish they dominated the boards. Also, they were only down a few despite a combined six for fifteen shooting half for Diggins and Novosel.
Thirty seconds into the second half, Peters drew the third foul on Dolson, and her two foul shots were followed by a perfectly led fast break, with Mallory dishing to Diggins. Diggins’ layup gave the Irish the lead for only the second time in the game. After a Hayes foul shot, Faris was forced to the bench with her third foul, and Novosel made it a two-point lead for the Irish.
At 17:19 the game changed on a bad decision by Stefanie Dolson. Trying to block a McBride shot from behind, she committed her fourth foul, and was forced to the bench. Two foul shots by McBride, followed by a McBride layup, and Geno Auriemma was forced to call timeout, down four, and the momentum fully in favor of Notre Dame.
Back and forth they went, with defense really controlling the flow. Even with Dolson out, UConn was able to stay close. Slowly though, the Irish began to extend the lead, opening it up to five, before freshman Mosqueda-Lewis with a steal and three point play cut it right back to two with just under 13 minutes to go, and a Faris layup tied it at 49-49.
McGraw used the media timeout to rally the Irish though, and they went on a five point burst to open up a 54-49 lead, and a UConn timeout. Dolson returned with the four fouls, and immediately scored on a drive across the lane off an inbounds pass. The Irish were ready though, and the Irish went right at her, trying to draw the fifth. Peters scored, followed by a Diggins layup and the Irish lead was up to seven points.
Persistently, the Huskies came right back with a Hayes layup and a Dolson put back, making it a 58-55 Notre Dame lead, and the Irish called timeout with seven minutes to go. Out of the timeout, another potential game changing moment came when Mosqueda-Lewis threw an elbow that caught Peters’ in the jaw, but the Huskies survived relatively unscathed as Peters missed one of the foul shots and a McBride air ball ended up out of bounds to UConn.
At the 3:40 media timeout, the Irish led by six on the strength of a Diggins jump shot, and the Huskies’ offense seemed chaotic and disorganized. Faris, the glue all season, struggled all game, as did senior Tiffany Hayes, and the defense of the Irish denying Hartley and Mosqueda-Lewis. Kiah Stokes put in a huge bucket, and Novosel and Hayes exchanged baskets. A UConn miss was followed by a huge steal by Faris of Novosel, and Faris’ put back cut it to 65-63 with 1:19 to go.
A very close block call on Peters put Faris on the line with 44 seconds, and the junior buried them both to tie the game.
A frantic finish followed, as Novosel missed a jump shot, Hartley lost the ball on the other end to McBride, and Faris stole it from McBride. Faris was fouled by Diggins, and, after struggling all game, hit both foul shots to give the Huskies a lead with 11.8 seconds.
Diggins missed the layup but Novosel’s put back forced overtime in Denver, 67-67.
Hartley hit a three pointer to start overtime, and after a few misses on each side, Diggins matched it, and Mallory hit a three pointer to make it a three point Irish lead.
Diggins made a horrific pass, but an incredible hustle shot block, leading to another Mallory three pointer and a four point lead with 1:20 to go. Mallory hit a foul shot, Hayes missed a drive, and the Irish had McBride at the line with the game in hand.
A Hartley layup made the final score 83-75 Notre Dame advancing to the final over Connecticut.
In the end, it was two outstanding teams, about as even as can be, slugging it out. “The Big Three” of Diggins, Novosel and Peters scored 19, 20 and 17, respectively, but it was Brittany Mallory, the graduate student, that hit the big shots in overtime.
Connecticut, the team that Auriemma said at the start of the year was not good enough to win a title this year, surprised many with how successful the season was. They had their inconsistent moments, but Tiffany Hayes and Bria Hartley were All-Americans, Dolson came up big in the tournament, and the future is bright.
For Notre Dame, will this be a repeat of last year, when a semi-final victory over Connecticut was followed by a championship game loss to Texas A&M,? Or will it be 2001, when the Irish cut down the nets with a national championship after defeating UConn in the semifinals?
We will find out Tuesday.