January 6, 2013
STORRS — If Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis hadn't missed the wide-open three with six seconds left, we're not having this conversation.
If the woman who coach Geno Auriemma called the best three-point shooter in the country had swished it and UConn had won by two, chances are we're not talking about how Notre Dame is tougher-minded than the Huskies and we're not talking about how the most talented freshman in all the land — Breanna Stewart — played liked most any freshman in all the land.
But KML missed and when asked what her mind-set was at that moment, she answered, "Make the shot."
If only it was all that simple, if only emotions flat-line like that, Mosqueda-Lewis wouldn't have been wiping the tears away from her face and Skylar Diggins wouldn't have been strutting around, screaming at the Gampel Pavilion crowd Saturday after the Irish's 73-72 victory over the No. 1 Huskies.
"I think a lot of people are afraid of the name on the front of the jersey," Diggins said of UConn after Notre Dame had beaten the Huskies for the fifth time in six meetings. "We aren't anymore."
"I think we did a good job of showing that and being tough ... biggest stage, one of the best crowds in the nation, No. 1 team in the nation, playing on [CBS], this is what it's all about."
So now Stanford has knocked off No. 1 Baylor, and UConn has knocked off No. 1 Stanford and Notre Dame has knocked off No. 1 UConn after the Irish lost to Baylor. Who's No. 1?
"That's for you guys to vote on," Diggins said.
Diggins has the kind of smile that can light up a press conference and the kind of bad-ass attitude that has gotten her nearly 300,000 Twitter followers. Kayla McBride, who finished with 21 points, was probably the best player on the floor on this day, but there's no doubt that so much of the resolve, tenacity, and does an old man dare use the word? — swagger — flows from Diggins.
Last year, with seniors like Natalie Novosel, Deveareaux Peters and Brittany Mallory, if Notre Dame had come into Gampel and pulled out a game like this one, followers of women's college basketball would have nodded their heads sagely and spoken of the Irish's maturity, poise and toughness. Well, they're gone and there were the Irish still playing hard as nails when it mattered most Saturday.
Afterward, coach Muffet McGraw did everything but scream, "We've got Diggins and you don't!"
"When you have a player like Skylar on your team, you don't need to do a whole lot," McGraw said. "She does it all. She lays the groundwork. She sets the tone. Right from the summer on when the freshmen arrived, she let them know this is how we do it."
"She has been such a great leader. They hang on every word she says. They just want to please her. She brings the level of competition in practice way up. They have to respond to it. She's not afraid to get on them. With Kayla McBride and Natalie Achowna, we have a little bit of a core. But, really, it's almost all Skylar."
Diggins shot 4 of 15 from the floor, but she pushes, pushes and gets calls like an NBA star. The rest of the Irish had 12 foul shots. UConn had 14. Diggins alone hit nine of 12 free throws to finish with 19 points. And it was her free throw with 49 seconds left after her drive to the hoop that provided the winning point. Afterward, Auriemma would also point to two three-pointers in a row that Diggins hit early in the second half when he felt that UConn was taking over the game.
"Skylar has changed things for us and our mind-set," McGraw said. "She believes she can win. She has the confidence that is contagious."
Look, in a game like this, you can push the story line in a lot of different directions. One shot, one play can make all the difference. Michaela Mabrey hit a three in the second half that looked awfully close to her having her foot on the line. The officials wouldn't even review it. They should have, because those who looked at it afterward on video thought it was painfully close. One point only meant everything.
And what about the final 30 seconds? When was the last time a UConn team had three chances to win it on the offensive end and didn't?
"A play here and a play there ends up determining the game," Auriemma said.
Stewart had a shot blocked by Ariel Braker and UConn was fortunate the possession arrow was in its favor. Stewart then missed another shot with 25 seconds left and off a mad tumble, Kelly Faris was able to grab ball and call a timeout. Ultimately, KML missed the open three.
"How many times can we put up our defense?" McGraw said. "So we thought about our football team getting that goal-line stand three times in a row [against USC.] We said if they can do it we can do it."
"… and maybe [Mosqueda-Lewis] was too wide open."
So, sure, it came down to one play here and one play there. But it also came down to Notre Dame's being the tougher-minded team on this day and the greatest freshman in all the land playing like a freshman. If you glance at Stewart's line score, 10 points, nine rebounds and six blocks, you could be fooled into thinking she had a fairly decent game.
She didn't. Certainly not for her.
"Stewie struggled a lot," Auriemma said. "You want to play really well so badly, maybe you get a little bit ahead of yourself. Obviously, it was a real struggle for her at both ends of the floor."
Stewart missed a bunch of layups. She committed four turnovers without an assist. She got nailed for a lane violation on a free throw. She got blocked and missed another shot in the final 30 seconds. Balls bounced off her. She got beat some on defense. All sorts of stuff.
"I definitely could have slowed the game down, especially on offense, in my head," Stewart said. "It's a really big wake-up call."
Faris, in particular, was hard on herself and hard on her team. She crushed herself for the team's not scoring in the final 30 seconds: "I'm a leader of the team. I'm supposed to figure out a way to win the game."
Yet she also said, "It never should have come down to that. That's more frustrating. There no reason we should have been in that position had we fixed the things we should have fixed a long time ago. … Clearly Notre Dame exposed some things that we need to fix."
"Same things, rebounding, not having a hand up on defense, not crashing the boards offensively. We've got to change our mind-set. "
Nor was Faris feeding Stewart a baby bottle of warm milk.
"No matter if you're a freshman or a senior, there's no excuse for different issues, turnovers or mistakes. Yeah, it's going to be tough. We've all been there. If you're the type of player to come here, you've got toget over that type of thing. She knows there's a lot of things she has to come back and work on."
And the coach?
"I would like to see [Stewart] take a deep breath and relax," Auriemma said. "I'd like for somebody to go down to the Charter Oak Bridge and make sure she doesn't jump off. That would be a big help for us so we'll get her back for Wednesday's game. I just want her to understand there are things about the college game, 'I don't know yet, that I'm not capable of doing yet.' The physical-ness of the game. … She looked out of sorts right from the beginning. It's not easy being a freshman in these games. But that's why you play them in January. You hope you get better."
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