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Irish beat Tennessee, reach third Final Four

Moments before they climbed the blue stepladder to cut down the net, Skylar Diggins and her Notre Dame teammates joined arms, formed a circle and did a jig at the free-throw line.

There's a little history in that step.

The Fighting Irish began kicking up their heels during the 1999-2000 season, turning it into a pregame ritual. They danced all the way to the national title the following year, good reason to turn the ritual into a tradition.

Ten years later, they're high-stepping it back to the Final Four.

Diggins scored a season-high 24 points with her clutch left-handed shot, steadying the Fighting Irish through the tough moments of their 73-59 victory over Tennessee for the regional championship on Monday night.

Notre Dame (30-7) will play either Big East rival Connecticut or Duke in the semifinals. No question who they prefer.

"We're definitely cheering for the Big East," coach Muffet McGraw said. "We'd like to have two Final Four teams from the Big East."

UConn beat them 79-76 at Notre Dame and 78-57 at home during the regular season, then again 73-64 in the conference tournament. Given what happened on Monday night, the Fighting Irish figure the math is on their side.

The second-seeded Irish were 0-20 all time against top-seeded Tennessee (34-3), taking 28 years of beatings. They seemed to be pretty even teams with contrasting styles heading into game No. 21 in their one-sided series — the Lady Vols with muscle upfront and young guards, while the Fighting Irish do it with hustle on defense and a fast-paced attack.

Notre Dame had the best guard on the floor, one who likes to play disc jockey in her spare time. Diggins sure was a hit in the regional.

The sophomore point guard had a career-high 12 assists in a semifinal win over Oklahoma, distributing the ball to open shooters. With the Lady Vols clamping down, Diggins asserted herself and kept Notre Dame ahead most of the way — Tennessee led for only 2 minutes, 43 seconds in the first half.

"In a way, I'm just living my dream," said Diggins, a South Bend native who became only the second Notre Dame player to reach 1,000 points in her second season.

The Fighting Irish weren't sure whether they'd have senior forward Becca Bruszewski, the team's emotional leader who sprained her left knee during the semifinal win over Oklahoma. She played 37 minutes wearing a brace, scored 13 points and had a team-high eight rebounds, then danced the jig on her bum knee.

"This is an unreal feeling," Bruszewski said.

For Tennessee, too.

The Lady Vols had won their past 25 games, the second-longest streak in school history. They hadn't lost since falling at Baylor on Dec. 14, but were off their game in Dayton. Coach Pat Summitt had to yell at them at halftime of a close win over Ohio State.

She fumed on the sideline Monday with arms crossed as her young players tightened up and her team unraveled.

"Obviously I'm very upset, I'm very disappointed in our basketball team," Summitt said. "I don't think we came here with the focus. Don't ask me why. I'm kind of at a loss for words.

"We've got a ways to go, obviously. We were exposed today."

Freshman guard Meighan Simmons went 1 for 11 from the field and finished with two points. Tennessee shot 33 percent from the field and had 19 turnovers.

"There were times we got so overanxious," Summitt said. "Being at this point and trying to get to a Final Four was probably too much for the younger players."

Not for Diggins, who didn't hesitate to shoot whenever Tennessee tried to make a comeback.

"No question Skylar Diggins was the player that made them go, and we don't have a guard that plays that way," Summitt said. "And guard play is very important at this time of year. She was terrific, without any doubt the best guard on the floor. She energizes that team. She was the real force. She does what she has to do."

So has Notre Dame during its run to the third Final Four in school history.

"I think there were some questions early," McGraw said. "When you lose four starters, you're going to have to figure out who's going to step up for you. I think the growth of this team is one of the best of any I've coached."