DENVER -- The message on the dry-erase board sits in the left corner of the Notre Dame women's basketball locker room. And it never changes. Written in marker by junior guard Skylar Diggins and senior forward Devereaux Peters after returning from Indianapolis following last year's championship game loss to Texas A&M, it is motivation by pain, and the driving force for the entire season.
TEXAS A&M 76, NOTRE DAME 70.
"The score has been up there since we lost last year," said Notre Dame senior guard Fraderica Miller on Sunday night. "And it's waiting on us to come home and erase it."
That will happen if the Irish defeat Baylor in the national championship game on Tuesday night, the team's second straight appearance in the sport's ultimate game following an 83-75 overtime win over Connecticut (RECAP | BOX SCORE). It was the first overtime game in a national semifinal since Old Dominion defeated Stanford in 1997 and it included what might have been the most memorable late-game stretch for conference foes who have faced each other an extraordinary eight times in 14 months. (As UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph said before the game: "I feel like we've played Notre Dame for the past month.")
After Notre Dame (35-3) opened up a 63-57 lead with 4:01 left on a jumper by Diggins, UConn's comeback was keyed by a series of hustle plays from junior guard Kelly Faris. The UConn player scored on a layup following a steal with 1:19 left to cut the lead to 65-63 and tied the game at 65 on a pair of free throws. Her one-woman Irish wrecking crew continued when she stripped Notre Dame's Kayla McBride with 12 seconds left and was fouled by Diggins on a driving layup. Faris then hit both free throws to give the UConn (33-5) a 67-65 with 11 seconds left, a wild 90 seconds that looked to cost Notre Dame a chance for a title.
"The last minute of regulation was horrible," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "We had the lead. We gave it away. We did some really silly things that we generally don't do."
But Notre Dame has played with a professional urgency this season -- the Irish have two seniors (Miller and guard Natalie Novosel) and two players who have already received their undergraduate degrees (guard Brittany Mallory and forward Devereaux Peters). After Diggins drove the length of the court and missed a driving layup, Novosel followed with a whirling reverse layup to tie the game with 4.4 seconds left. "The plan was for Sky to drive the ball and we were going to play off her," Novosel said. "I was able get the offensive rebound and put it in with enough time left. I thought off it would spin off the front but I was so happy it went in."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the last play of regulation would haunt him this offseason because he failed to have more size inside. "I made a huge mistake of taking out [center] Kiah Stokes," Auriemma said. "We went with five guards so that we could switch all their screens. And in the end a defensive rebound would have won it for us. That's the part I'm going home with."
The overtime featured two 3-pointers from Mallory and a brilliant defensive play from Diggins. With Notre Dame leading 73-72, UConn senior Tiffany Hayes picked Diggins' pocket and led a 2-on-1 fast break where she got the ball to sophomore Bria Hartley. But Diggins followed the play, held her ground, and cleanly blocked Hartley's layup attempt.
The Notre Dame All-America then sprinted down the court and kicked a pass to a wide-open Mallory, who was behind the 3-point line on the right arc. The fifth-year senior let it fly, and the Irish crowd let you know the echoes had awakened in Denver. "She had missed two threes during the game and she came over to me on the bench and said, "Fred, I can't hit a three.'" Miller said. "But as soon as that shot went up I knew she was going to hit it because she was so adamant about missing the others. I figured, 'You have to hit this.'"
Said Mallory: "My whole team was telling me keep shooting, saying they're going to fall, they're going to fall. Sky hit me for the pass and I lined up, took a deep breath and let it go. I was thinking to myself this one's going in. And finally they both went in and I was so happy. I couldn't believe it. I was so happy."
Auriemma said that UConn wanted Mallory to shoot the ball and given that she had been cold from the outside for much of the NCAA tournament, it was sound strategy. "Brittany Mallory made two huge shots, and that's who we wanted to shoot the ball," Auriemma said. "And, God bless her, she stepped up and made shots."
So did UConn's Stefanie Dolson, who played a brilliant game in the post. Dolson led UConn with 20 points on 10 of 16 shooting and was unstoppable for much of the first half as she scored on layup after layup after rolling to the basket. Throughout the opening, physical 20 minutes -- which resembled a Broncos game more than the Nuggets -- UConn's swarming defensive pressure forced Notre Dame into low percentage shots late in the shot clock. Auriemma said before the game that Notre Dame was the best team in the country at getting to the line and he believed the key factor for UConn was to force Notre Dame to make contested 2's and 3's. That strategy worked in the first half, but the second half and overtime featured what seemed like a whistle-a-minute as 22 fouls were called after the first break. Notre Dame went to line 27 times (compared to UConn's 13).
Impressively, Dolson played the last 10 minutes and all of overtime with four fouls and she and Hartley (18 points) give UConn a great base for the next season, which marks the arrival of the nation's top recruit, 6-foot-4 forward Breanna Stewart, and another touted freshman-to-be in point guard Moriah Jefferson. While Notre Dame's time is now, UConn is going to be dynastic over the next couple of years.
The rivalry between these schools might be the best in the game. The teams have split the eight meetings over the past two years, though Notre Dame owned a 3-1 advantage this year. Asked if it was better to beat UConn than another opponent, Diggins admitted it was. "It feels great," she said, "and yeah, it's that much sweeter because it's UConn."
Now comes the biggest test of the season against 39-0 Baylor, and a chance to permanently erase last year's memories.
"I want them to experience a national championship," said McGraw. "Every time I look at them, all I can think is how much I love them. It's like a little bit like being a mom and watching your daughters do some great things. It's very emotional for me with this group. I don't think I've ever had a group like this. They take such ownership and we play for each other."