Out of UConn's Shadow

HARTFORD, Conn. – Geno Auriemma did something Monday night that can only be described as a rarity within the modern history of the Connecticut women's basketball program.

He waved the white flag. He threw in the towel. He conceded defeat with three minutes, 11 seconds left at the XL Center and No. 3 Notre Dame well on its way to a 72-59 victory over No. 4 UConn.

In fact, that final 13-point margin had already been established when Auriemma yanked Bria Hartley, Tiffany Hayes, Stefanie Dolson, Kelly Faris and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to the bench. That's where they remained until the end of the game, assuming the role of spectators while many in the crowd of 15,132 headed for the exits.

"I was saying we still had three minutes," Hayes said when asked for her reaction. "I think if we would come together we would have had a chance. But I guess he wanted to give the other five a chance, so we had to sit and cheer and see what they could do."

At that point, there was nothing anyone on the UConn side could do but wait for the Irish to pull on their Big East champion T-shirts and head to the postgame press conference. Notre Dame (28-2, 15-1) had already wrapped up the No. 1 seed for the Big East tournament that begins Friday at the XL Center. But by knocking off UConn (26-4, 13-3), Notre Dame also won the conference championship outright for the first time.

The Irish swept the season series with the Huskies and notched their first win ever in Hartford after seven defeats.

UConn enters the conference championship as the No. 3 seed for the first time since 2005. The Huskies closed out the season with consecutive home losses, including the stunning loss to St. John's at Gampel Pavilion that ended UConn's 99-game home winning streak.

Consecutive losses at home? That hasn't happened to UConn since 1993.

And this was UConn's first double-digit loss at home since North Carolina handled the Huskies 77-54 on Dec. 5, 2005.

A win Monday night would have given UConn a share of the regular-season title and the No. 2 seed. But St. John's moved ahead of the Huskies by beating Georgetown Monday night.

"They're just better than we are right now," Auriemma said. "That's the bottom line. Devereaux Peters is a better rebounder than anybody we have. And Natalie Novosel is a tougher kid than anyone we have right row. They deserved to win. Fair and square."

Novosel led Notre Dame with 21 points. Skylar Diggins had 20 and Kayla McBrie hit six of nine shots for 12 points. Peters had a game-high 15 rebounds as Notre Dame won the battle of the boards 42-31 – and that is where this game was won.

Hayes led UConn with 22 points and Stefanie Dolson was a bright spot with 18 points and seven rebounds.

"It's a pride thing," Diggins said. "We wanted to step out of the shadow of UConn."

The best way to do that is to beat the Huskies – especially at home, especially in the Big East standings.

This is the first time in six seasons that UConn didn't win or share the Big East regular season title. The Huskies have won either the Big East regular season or tournament championship in each of the last 17 years. Auriemma, who has won seven national championships at UConn, obviously had an eye to the future when he sent that message to his top five players.

"We lost the Big East championship when we lost to St. John's," Auriemma said. "For all intents and purposes, I could care less about that. You don't come to Connecticut to tie Notre Dame for the Big East championship. We don't hold parades for ties around here.

"Tonight was about setting a pattern. We need to find out what are we going to do going forward? Who can we count on going forward?"

Novosel had 14 points to lead the Irish in the first half. She was 3-for-10 from the floor but hit all seven free throws she took. Peters and Diggins had eight points each as the Irish jumped out to a 38-35 halftime lead.

UConn was called for eight personal fouls in the first half and that sent the Irish to the free throw line. Notre Dame hit all 10 of its free throws, outscoring the Huskies by six points from the line before the break.

Dolson and Hayes combined for 30 of UConn's 35 first-half points. They did that by combining to shoot 12 of 18 from the floor. UConn led 51-49 with 13 minutes to play when Mosqueda-Lewis scored, was fouled and hit the free throw for a three-point play.

But Notre Dame's defense had the final say. The Irish forced turnovers on five of the next six UConn possessions and Notre Dame took off on a 12-2 run. Brittany Mallory's basket gave the Irish a 62-53 lead with 9:12 remaining.

UConn gave it a brief battle and closed the gap to 63-59 on a free throw by Kelly Faris with 7:33 left.

But the Huskies would not score again. They missed their final nine field goal attempts, didn't get second shots, and Notre Dame closed out the game with a 9-0 run.

"The story of the game was written in that stretch," Auriemma said. "We'd get ourselves in a good place, commit a stupid turnover and they would score."

Auriemma said there are some Huskies on this team that refuse to listen to him, the coaching staff or any of their teammates.

"If you only knew," he said. "If you only knew how we could come out of a timeout and none of the players had any idea of what to do because they don't listen to anything I say or our coaches say."

You can bet Auriemma will use that, along with the lopsided margin of this game, as reminders the next time the Huskies play Notre Dame. That might be as soon as the Big East tournament – in the March 6 championship game. It might be deep in the NCAA Tournament.

But for now there is a new world order. And Notre Dame is on top.

"I think everyone in the country probably feels like they are in UConn's shadow," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "They've got a great program. We have complete respect for what they've done here."

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