They won't win this one in the last minute. They won't have to.
This time, the UConn women will win it in the first 39.
Doris Burke, ESPN's lead analyst, had a question Saturday at the network's Final Four media conference. And it was a good one.
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Storrs, Mansfield, CT, USA
"Who goes to bed tonight wanting to be the hero?" Burke asked of the Huskies.
We already know the answer on the other side. Skylar Diggins. If UConn-Notre Dame IV comes down to one possession Sunday night, you don't need to be a basketball authority, a shrink or expert on the Heimlich maneuver.
UConn's not winning. There's a drop of doubt in the UConn players' heads that is deeper and wider than the Mississippi River.
"I asked Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis how many times she had replayed that wide open three [she missed in the first meeting this season] in her head," Burke said. "She said quite a bit. Is she in her hotel room tonight hoping for that chance to get that situation again? You've got to be hoping."
"She wants it," Burke said. "Are you kidding me? Please."
Diggins said her team went out to a Bourbon Street restaurant Friday night and she looked straight into the eyes of a crawfish. She ate it anyway. Although Geno Auriemma may disagree, that's what will happen if this national semifinal game is tied with 18 seconds to go in New Orleans Arena. Skylar will look the Huskies in the eyes and devour them.
"UConn's weakness, or at least the inconsistency, is the level of guard play and late game execution," Burke said. "It has really been mind-blowing for me to watch Connecticut fail to execute down the stretch of games. For years, we have come to expect the best out of their players when the moments are the hardest."
Notre Dame has beaten UConn seven of the past eight times. They've beaten the Huskies in back-to-back Final Four games and all three times this season. UConn has led in the second half of all seven of their losses. They were ahead or tied in the final minute of regulation in five of the seven, including the games this season … and, well, you know the rest.
On Saturday, Diggins talked about getting some Twitter love from Trey Songz this week, looked down at the grizzled collection of sports journalism and proceeded to tell us who Trey Songz is. When asked about her mastery of the Huskies, she smiled and said, "I still feel like Connecticut is America's Team and they're going to cheer for them whether we beat them 20 times in a row." Yes, Diggins has an edge sharper than an old barbershop razor.
Still, ESPN analyst and Sun guard Kara Lawson, who ordinarily is as confident as anyone in stating her case, is terribly unsure how this will end.
"I switch every hour," Lawson said. "It's terrible. I have no freaking clue."
I think I do have a clue. After they lost at Notre Dame in triple overtime and again in the final 18 seconds in the Big East tournament championship on a play that charitably could be called the worst in UConn history … I was convinced they would lose this game.
Now I am now convinced they will win.
It doesn't have anything to do with Geno Auriemma telling a Middlesex Chamber of Commerce breakfast after the Big East tournament, "We're not going to lose the next one." It doesn't have anything to do with Muffet McGraw practically thanking Geno for motivating her team by answering Diggins' remark that she had "a distaste" for UConn before the Big East title game, by saying, "If I was her, I would feel the same way. We have seven national championships, they have one."
"That was a great motivational speech I'd never have to give to my team," McGraw said Saturday.
This doesn't even have to do with Auriemma, evidently irked by the criticism of the last-minute demises, guaranteeing success if it comes down to one play: "If there's one timeout left and we come out of a timeout and need a possession to score, we WILL score."
No. This has to do with UConn being a different team than it was a month ago. This UConn team is a rare jewel in the course of women's basketball. With players staying for four years, with the elite talent concentrated at so few schools, the women's college game is not nearly as dynamic as the men's. Rarely, do teams re-invent themselves with freshmen in the final days of a season.
This team has. With the emergence of Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, this is not the same team Notre Dame beat three times. Call me stupid. But here is it. UConn is not going to beat the Irish in the last minute. They're going to beat them in the first 39.
"I do think during the course of a game when you talk about a physical, wear-down game, Jefferson can bring an element where she can have 4-5-6 big moments," Lawson said. "Whether it's, 'I'm going to guard Skylar five minutes in the first half and I'm going to make her go fullcourt with pressure,' or 'I'm going to push it on the fastbreak with end to end speed.' Those are the things she can do. So maybe instead of being down one, they're up four with under a minute."
That's what I'm talking about it. With a vicious tempo, Jefferson will hurt Notre Dame in the first half and early in the second. As as long as she maintains focus, she will elude much of Notre Dame's ball pressure. With length, an inside game and an outside game, Stewart isn't playing like a scared, worried kid anymore. She has found her dominant form.
Burke said Notre Dame has the toughest tandem of guards, both mentally and physically in the country in Diggins and Kayla McBride. True.
"The hardest thing for UConn," Lawson said, "is they don't have a player that, 'I'm going to do it when it's time to do it. They wait and if it comes to me I'll do it, but if doesn't, that's OK, too.' It doesn't really work that way. At some point somebody has to step up.
"Maybe, it's Stewart. Maybe it's Jefferson. But if that's the case, I feel they would do it the first 39 minutes. I still believe that it's going to have to be Mosqueda-Lewis, Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson or Kelly Farris that makes THE play, whatever the THE play is."
I don't think there will be THE play this time. I think there will be a series of big plays. Sure, Mosqueda-Lewis has to shake some ghosts. She failed to box out Natalie Novosel in a huge moment in the 2012 Final Four. She missed the three in the first meeting, didn't cover McBride on the three at Notre Dame and turned the ball over in the Big East tournament. But here's the thing. She doesn't have to exorcise demons in the last 60 seconds if she can exercise her game for 39 minutes.
"We are waiting for a Kaleena break-through moment in a possession ballgame when a shot or play has to be made," Burke said. "It may be more than a moment. It's probably extended moments of brilliance. She is capable of dominating a game for 40 minutes.
"For Connecticut to sustain the confidence built in the last two weeks, I think they have to get off to a fast start and absolutely have to have the lead late. If they go down the stretch with a six- or eight-point lead, Geno has to have timeouts in his pocket and be the decision-maker in the big moments."
Her basketball IQ, her fearlessness, her leadership, Diggins throws her shoulders back, stares daggers and demands the ball at the end. Is she the greatest opponent in UConn women's basketball history? Damn straight she is. But this time it will be about UConn having too many sustained answers even for Diggins.
"Jefferson's emergence has changed them in a lot of ways," Lawson said. "I think it has allowed Hartley to play off the ball some and I think she's better that way. Their offense has even more pace with Jefferson."
Burke said she arrived in New Orleans believing UConn would win. Then she met with the Irish players Friday in the interview room.
"They had the greatest edge and greatest self-assurance of the four teams," Burke said. "That's when I changed.
"You start re-watching all three games, see how driven Skylar Diggins is and the fact I have not yet seen UConn be able to execute late in games, show the physical and mental toughness in those moments."
All true. And UConn will win it in 39.