No. 3 seed Notre Dame rallied in the second half and gutted out a thrilling 71-67 victory against No. 2 seed DePaul Monday night in a Big East Tournament semifinal at the XL Center. DePaul rallied to beat Notre Dame, 70-69, last Monday in the regular-season finale.
Coach Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish (26-6) seek their first Big East Tournament championship, going up against a No. 1 seed UConn team (31-1) that defeated the Irish twice in the regular season, 79-76, on Jan. 8, in South Bend, and 78-57, on Feb. 19, in Storrs, Conn. It will be Notre Dame’s first trip to the Big East Tournament championship game since 2001. DePaul awaits NCAA Tournament play at 27-6.
Notre Dame played the last 3:39 without senior captain Becca Bruszewski, who suffered a rib injury and is questionable for Tuesday night’s championship battle against two-time defending national champion Connecticut.
"This team showed tremendous heart," McGraw said of her Irish. "I wouldn’t be surprised if they rallied around because Becca was out. She has that kind of impact on our team. It was a gutsy performance down the stretch with everybody. Everybody was playing as hard as they could. Every possession was key. It was a great TV game. I’m so proud of my team right now."
In Notre Dame’s last Big East Tournament title game appearance in 2001, UConn’s Sue Bird hit a buzzer-beater to give the Huskies a stunning 78-76 victory for the crown. McGraw’s Irish, though, rallied from an 18-point deficit in the national semifinals against Connecticut that season and went on to win that game and then win the national title against Purdue.
On Monday night, the Irish displayed that champion look.
After a Skylar Diggins free throw gave Notre Dame a 69-67 lead with 20 seconds left, DePaul tried to put the ball in the hands of Keisha Hampton, who scored a career-high 31 points.
But Irish guard Brittany Mallory deflected the ball out of bounds off of Hampton, giving the Irish possession with 11 seconds left. Amazingly, the Irish played keep-away from a DePaul team desperate to foul. Mallory was finally fouled with two seconds left, and hit two free throws for the 71-67 lead.
"They had been running that same play … for Hampton to get the ball and go one-on-one off the ball screen," Mallory said of the critical turnover. "I just cheated up a little higher than I usually do. It was a slow, loopy pass and I just got a hand on it and we dove after it, and luckily, it hit her out of bounds, and we got the ball."
McGraw was thrilled with the way her club battled.
"It would be really hard to pick a player of the game after that one," McGraw said. "So many people contributed in so many ways. Obviously, Brittany Mallory’s steal at the end of the game and the two free throws were the plays of the game.
"I thought Natalie Achonwa off the bench was huge. She did so many great things. She hit a huge basket down the stretch (to give Notre Dame a 68-65 lead). Skylar penetrated and dropped it off to her. She did a nice job on the boards. She played like a veteran."
Notre Dame’s victory against No. 9-ranked DePaul is the first by the Irish against a top 10 team since they knocked off a No. 10 Purdue team, 67-58, in 2006. It’s the first victory against a top 10 team away from home since 2005, when Notre Dame beat No. 9 Connecticut, 65-59, which is also the last time Notre Dame beat the Huskies.
Diggins led Notre Dame with 19 points, four assists and six rebounds. Diggins hit a dramatic layup with 1:27 left in the game to give the Irish a 66-65 lead.
Irish post Devereaux Peters scored 15 points, 11 in the second half, and had nine rebounds.
Achonwa had eight points and five rebounds. She took a pass from Diggins and scored a layup with 41 seconds left to give the Irish a 68-65 lead.
Bruszewski scored seven points and grabbed nine rebounds. Mallory finished with nine points.
Peters, Bruszewski and Achonwa rotated playing phenomenal defense on DePaul’s 6-foot-3 post, Felicia Chester, who bullied the Irish for 20 points in the Blue Demon’s one-point victory over the Irish last Monday. Chester, who hit the game-winner with five seconds left last Monday, was scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting.
"I thought the double-team was really effective (on Chester), but Hampton, wow,’’ McGraw said. "She can really play. We couldn’t stop her."
Notre Dame, which had a 9-0 lead, fought back from a 33-27 halftime deficit to grab a 45-43 lead with 14:03 left in the game thanks to a 3-point play by Peters off an offensive rebound.
"I think I was just looking for it a little bit more, stepping in front of guards," Peters said of her second-half surge. "I don’t think I was in the right spot on a lot of plays. We talked about it at the half, so I was trying to get to the right places so my teammates could find me."
DePaul owned a 48-45 lead, but the Irish struck back with a 12-3 run that included a huge 3 by Kaila Turner, and took a 57-51 lead with 8:43 left in the game. The Blue Demons then reeled off six in a row to tie the score at 57-57 with 7:25 left.
It was a see-saw battle from there.
"Notre Dame is a very good basketball team," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "We got beat by one of the best teams in the country. I love my team. I love the way my team plays out there. We didn’t make enough stops down the stretch with the same stops we made in the first half of last week. We had a tough time inside tonight. It’s tough to win when you don’t have balance."
NOTRE DAME (26-6): Peters 5-9 5-5 15, Bruszewski 1-5 5-7 7, Diggins 6-15 7-9 19, Novosel 3-12 2-4 8, Mallory 2-6 4-4 9, Achonwa 4-5 0-0 8, Turner 2-3 0-0 5. Totals 23-55 23-29 71.
DEPAUL (27-6): Hampton 11-22 6-8 31, Chester 0-7 0-1 0, Harry 1-5 0-0 2, Martin 4-10 2-2 12, Quigley 4-11 0-0 11, Pikes 1-5 0-0 2, Threatt 0-2 0-0 0, Naughton 4-7 0-1 9. Totals 25-69 8-12 67.
Halftime — DePaul 33-27. 3-Point Goals — Notre Dame 2-10 (Turner 1-2, Mallory 1-3, Novosel 0-1, Diggins 0-4), DePaul 9-23 (Hampton 3-6, Quigley 3-7, Martin 2-5, Naughton 1-1, Threatt 0-1, Pikes 0-3). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Notre Dame 42 (Bruszewski, Peters 9), DePaul 41 (Chester 11). Assists — Notre Dame 7 (Diggins 4), DePaul 9 (Hampton, Martin 3). Total Fouls — Notre Dame 15, DePaul 20. A — 9,260.Staff writer Curt Rallo: email@example.com 574-235-6152