DENVER (AP) — Notre Dame gets another shot at Baylor and this time the stakes are much higher: the national championship.
The teams met in the preseason WNIT final, with the Lady Bears winning in Waco 94-81 on Nov. 17.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Baylor star Brittney Griner said after the Lady Bears took care of Stanford 59-47 in the nightcap. “We beat them earlier in the season, but we’ve got to erase that. This is the game everybody wants.”
The Irish (35-3) have been talking about it ever since losing last year’s national championship 76-70 to Texas A&M after dispatching UConn in the semifinals.
They reached the title game again behind Skylar Diggins and Brittany Mallory, both of whom saved their most spectacular plays for overtime in Notre Dame’s 83-75 win over Connecticut.
Diggins scored 19 points and had a crucial rejection to thwart a 2-on-1 fast-break and Mallory snapped out of a long-range shooting funk with two big 3-pointers in the extra period.
This was the second straight time the Lady Bears beat their bitter Big East rivals in the national semifinals, something they also did in 2001, when they won their only national championship.
Notre Dame (35-3) also beat the Huskies (33-5) in the semifinals last year, ending Maya Moore’s brilliant career and the Huskies’ bid for a third straight national championship.
Beating Geno Auriemma’s Huskies again made it all the sweeter.
“It’s great getting to the championship game and it’s the exact thing that happened last year,” Mallory said. “But we’ve had a battle with them all year. We played them three times before this game. And they won the last game. … It couldn’t be a better way to go to a championship.”
The Irish blew a big lead in the closing minutes of regulation and fell behind in overtime as Bria Hartley sank a 3-pointer to cap an 11-2 UConn run and give the Huskies a 70-67 lead with all the momentum.
Diggins tied it with a 3, and then Mallory broke out of a shooting slump with her two big 3s.
The two hooked up for a game-turning play in overtime when Diggins stood her ground on a fast break, blocked the shot to prevent the Huskies from retaking the lead, then fed Mallory at the other end for her second important 3.
“That was game-saving. That was huge,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “That would have turned it around if they made that layup. (Diggins) sprinted the floor, made that huge play. It gave us such a big momentum lift, and Britt hitting that 3 made it a huge play.”
Connecticut and Notre Dame were tied at 67 after regulation. UConn closed with an 8-2 run that was fueled by a series of hustle plays from Kelly Faris, who had a steal and a basket and four free throws in the final 90 seconds.
The Huskies, who were led by Stefanie Dolson’s 20 points despite foul trouble, stretched their run to 11-2 when Hartley opened the extra period with a 3-pointer.
The Huskies had the ball again after a missed free throw, but Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis fired up an off-target 3-pointer early in the shot clock and UConn never recovered.
Diggins’ best play came on defense. With Notre Dame clinging to a 73-72 lead, the Huskies had a 2-on-1 fast break but Diggins blocked Hartley’s layup attempt, and the Irish scored the next eight points to ice it.
“As most games do, it turned on one great play by a great player,” Auriemma said.
“In overtime we didn’t have enough. We took a chance on making it difficult, but Brittany Mallory made two huge shots. That’s who we wanted to take the shots, and God bless her, she made them.”
Mallory was 0 for 4 from behind the arc in regulation.
“It was a big sigh of relief when that first one went in,” she said.
“I am euphoric right now for Brittany Mallory,” McGraw said. “What a way for senior to come through in one of the last games of her career.”
Natalie Novosel led the Irish with 20 points, including her follow-up hook shot with 4.6 seconds left in regulation that tied it after Diggins’ shot was off.
Even though the Huskies were unable to get off a shot in the final few seconds of regulation, they were the ones who were excited heading into overtime.
“I thought we had a lot of momentum,” Hartley said. “There was a lot of excitement and we felt good going into the overtime. It didn’t work out.”
Thanks mostly to Mallory, who was just 1 for 11 from long range during the NCAA tournament before making the pair of big 3s in overtime.
“That’s her leadership and next-play attitude,” Kayla McBride said. “She had no hesitation and we all had confidence in her.”
Hartley had 18 points for the Huskies, who are 20-2 in the NCAA tournament since 2009 with both losses coming against Notre Dame.
Copyright 2012 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.