Disappointment tinged Skylar Diggins’ voice as she sat with Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and teammate Devereaux Peters at a table to address the media after Connecticut knocked off the Irish, 79-76, on Saturday afternoon.
But Diggins’ words revealed a resolve meant to steel the Irish. This is a young Notre Dame team, but the future is now, in terms of contending with the likes of the two-time defending national champion Huskies.
Diggins, Notre Dame’s sophomore point guard, ended her session with the media by saying, “I’m excited about the future of this team, and we’ll see UConn again.”
The two teams will meet again when the Irish travel to Storrs, Conn., on Feb. 19. And there’s the possibility of a third matchup in the Big East Conference Tournament.
Diggins had the right perspective after the stinging defeat.
“We learn from it,” Diggins said. “Of course, playing a good team like UConn, I think we did a better job of just taking it one game at a time and not really saying, ‘Oh, my God, it’s UConn.’ We realize that we can stick with the best teams in the nation after playing Baylor and now UConn.
“Little mistakes at the end, couple more lay-ups, couple more free throws, couple more defensive stops, we have the game. We’re at home. We wanted to win. We’re capable of winning the game. Little mental mistakes, mistakes defensively, we would have been right there. This is a game that we learn from, and this is a team that is coming into ourselves and finding ourselves and really moving forward being able to get better everyday.”
When No. 13 Notre Dame (13-4) faces the No. 2 Huskies (14-1) again, the areas that Diggins pointed out will be crucial:
* The end game: Notre Dame led by five points, 72-67, with 4:24 left in the game, but Connecticut stepped up and made plays at the end. UConn hit its last four shots, Notre Dame hit only two of its last 11. Freshman point guard Bria Hartley saw that the Irish sagged to cover Maya Moore, and threw a precision pass to sophomore Kelly Faris, who took advantage of the defensive lapse to get open underneath the basket for UConn’s go-ahead score with 14 seconds left. Another freshman, Stefanie Dolson, contributed a huge block, grabbed a rebound on a Diggins’ miss with three seconds left, and hit two free throws to give the Huskies their final margin. The Irish did make some amazing plays, like Natalie Novosel’s circus shot with 29 seconds left as she was knocked to the floor, but they didn’t match Connecticut’s playmaking ability in the clutch.
* Shooting: Notre Dame hit 27 of 75 field goal attempts for 36 percent. Several times, the Irish missed from point-blank range. Several players struggled against the Huskies’ defense. Diggins was 5-of-18 and missed her last two shots in the critical final seconds. Novosel was 6-of-15. Irish posts struggled to hit inside. Devereaux Peters, who was 9-of-12 against Marquette on Wednesday, was 5-of-13 Saturday. Natalie Achonwa hit 5 of 7 shots at Marquette, but was 3-of-11 against Connecticut. Notre Dame’s perimeter players were 2-of-11 in 3-point shooting. Whether it’s a matter of better shot selection, or not rushing the shot, the Irish need to figure out the issue and fix it to make sure that the Huskies don’t get off the hook the next time.
* Defense: Notre Dame limited Connecticut to 24-of-57 shooting (42 percent) but had trouble stopping the Huskies when it was most needed. The Huskies were 10-of-16 shooting to end the game after a 2-of-9 start to the second half. Notre Dame also put the Huskies on the free-throw line 27 times, where they cashed in by hitting 26 free throws. Peters did block four UConn shots with authority, and the Irish forced 20 turnovers and came up with seven steals, but they didn’t have an answer down the stretch for Faris (20 points) or Moore (31 points). They combined to score 30 of Connecticut’s 38 second-half points.
Ready to play
McGraw likes the fight in this season’s Irish, and Notre Dame will have to regroup quickly. The Irish host a tough Louisville team (12-5) on Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion (7 p.m. EST). The Cardinals crushed Kentucky, 78-52. The Wildcats beat Notre Dame, 81-76.
“We came out really ready,” McGraw said of the way her team attacked Connecticut. “We played hard, which we’ve done that all year, but we haven’t always done that in this particular game, on a big stage, national TV.
“You wonder how the freshmen are going to react, how everyone is going to react. …. You look back, and have to feel good about the effort that we played with and know that we can complete with that team, and hope that it carries over in a good way for the rest of the season.”
A different UConn
McGraw pointed out that this season’s Connecticut team is much different than the squad that posted back-to-back undefeated national championship runs the past two seasons.
“When Tina Charles graduated, I think that most of the coaches wanted to attend the graduation ceremony,” McGraw said of the 6-foot-4 2010 national player of the year. “We were all pretty happy that she was gone. She made such a difference in their team. You can’t replace her with a freshman, no matter how talented.
“I think that’s the giant loss that they had. She was unguardable. We had to play zone for 40 minutes. We could not guard her, or Maya. We had a lot of mis-match problems, which everybody did. Losing her was really big, and then (guard Caroline) Doty getting hurt, so you look and you say, now they have freshmen, they’re human, and if we play our game, we’ve got a shot.”Staff writer Curt Rallo: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6152