First, it was an aberration. Then it was a coincidence. By the end of last year it was definitely a trend.
Come Monday, it had become a legitimate annoyance.
Notre Dame’s success against UConn had made its point. Losing five of six over the last three seasons against a top rival – including two national semifinals – can toss and turn you.
So as much as Monday’s showdown with the Irish at Purcell Pavilion was about sharing the conference title with them, it was really more about re-establishing a positive train of thought for UConn heading into the postseason.
And what happened here was historic, certainly for the women’s game, still so littered with ordinary teams.
Not these two. Equally matched, equally inspired, equally resilient, they battled three through three overtimes before the Irish prevailed, 96-87.
“I guess you can see that we are not too good at sharing [the conference title],” said Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins.
It was the first triple overtime game in the history of both programs. In their last three losses, the Huskies led in the final minute.
“I was incredibly pleased with my team’s resiliency, its refusal to lose,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We were done at the end of regulation and the first overtime.”
Notre Dame (28-1, 16-0) closes out an undefeated conference season and clinches the first seed in this weekend’s Big East tournament in Hartford. It’s 23rd straight win ties a program record.
UConn (27-3, 14-2) is the second seed. And for that it can blame 35 turnovers (10 in three OTs) and errant free throw shooting in the three overtimes (7-of-13).
“How do I explain the turnovers?” Auriemma said. “I don’t know. I guess we’re not any good. … We need to protect the ball better and we didn’t do it. And unless we do a better job of it, this is going to be it for us.”
By the end, UConn was without Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley. Notre Dame was missing Kayla McBride. All had fouled out.
So Notre Dame freshman Jewel Loyd (six points, 54 minutes) and Diggins rolled off six straight points in the third OT to revive the Irish.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led UConn with 26 points in 55 minutes. Kelly Faris scored 21 with 13 rebounds in 53 minutes.
Stefanie Dolson scored 12 points with 11 rebounds, but completed a reverse triple-double with 11 turnovers. Bria Hartley added 10 points.
Diggins (29 points, 11-of-31) played 55 minutes. McBride (26 points, 11-of-28) and Diggins combined for 55 points and 59 shots of Notre Dame’s 89 shots.
“If you don’t do the little things you need to do at the right time to put yourself into position to win … we couldn’t finish it off.”
This was a wonderful game, played primarily in half-court, the teams trading screens, whipping the ball around, dipping shoulders looking for space and good scoring chances.
Tied at 64 after regulation, Breanna Stewart (seven points, 40 minutes) missed the front end of a penalty situation then Natalie Achonwa hit two free throws to pull the Irish within 70-66 with 1:47 to play.
After the Irish forced a shot clock violation, McBride missed a forced three and Auriemma called timeout with 57 seconds to play. The Irish regained possession but Kaila Turner missed a shot and Faris was fouled with 28.6 to play.
Faris missed the foul shot, but Notre Dame could not convert and Stewart when to the line and missed again.
Finally with 13.9 seconds to play, Achonwa made two free throws to cut the lead to 70-68. Morgan Tuck was then fouled and made one of two to increase the lead to 71-68 with 13.2 to play.
Then McBride forced the second overtime with a three with eight seconds remaining. It was Notre Dame’s only three-pointer of the game in 12 attempts.
“Every chance we had to put the game away we let slip away,” Auriemma said. “I never thought the kid [McBride] would just walk up to the three-point line and we’d just watch her shoot it.”
The Huskies had a 64-63 lead with 48.5 seconds to play in regulation after a basket by Faris.
UConn looked like it had the game won when Natalie Achonwa turned it over with 37 seconds left. But Dolson was inexplicably called for an offensive foul, her fifth of the game.
Worse yet, Hartley then also fouled out sending Diggins to the line for two shots.
She tied the game at 64-64 with 27.2 to play. But Caroline Doty turned the ball over when Diggins tied her up and the Irish had the final shot. But McBride missed with three seconds to play.
It was as fiery first half. With 8:21 to play, UConn ahead, 19-13, Dolson was called for her second foul. Auriemma vehemently disagreed and was hit with a technical by veteran official Dennis DeMayo. The two continued to yell at each other for a long time from opposite ends of the floor, UConn assistant Chris Dailey doing her best to keep Auriemma out of more trouble.
Now the Huskies need to regroup quickly if they want to win the conference tournament.
“I don’t know,” Faris said. “The 35 turnovers were incredibly unacceptable.”