HARTFORD, Conn. – There are few things missing from Muffet McGraw's impressive resume as coach of Notre Dame.
Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel filled one of the holes by guiding the third-ranked Fighting Irish to their first outright Big East championship with a 72-59 victory over No. 4 Connecticut on Monday night.
"This team is really special," McGraw said. "They have really high goals and a lot of pride. I'm happy for them and appreciate they are happy for me to win the first one. I love this group."
Novosel scored 21 points and Diggins added 20 for the Irish (28-2, 15-1 Big East), who will try and win their first Big East conference tournament when they begin play on Sunday.
"It's great," said Diggins, who was proudly wearing a Big East championship T-shirt in the postgame news conference. "You know we come out here and play for coach. She deserves it. It's something we wanted to do for her."
The Fighting Irish shared the regular-season championship with UConn in 2001 before going on to win the national title that season. Winning one outright was on their minds from the beginning of the season.
"It's definitely on our list of things we wanted to do," Novosel said. "We wanted to do it for coach since she hadn't gotten one."
Notre Dame had won just one of its previous 14 previous games in Connecticut, including going 0-7 at the XL Center.
Diggins led the way to this victory.
With the game tied at 51, Notre Dame went on an 11-2 run with Diggins scoring the first eight points. She hit two layups on the fast break then connected on a deep 3-pointer. Dolson's layup broke up the junior guard's spurt. A free throw by Diggins and a 3-pointer by Brittany Mallory made it 62-53 with 9:16 left.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was scoreless in the first half, had five quick points to get UConn within four. That's as close as the Huskies could get. Devereaux Peters followed up a free throw with a block on the other end that led to an easy lay-in by Diggins. Mallory hit another 3-pointer with just under five minutes left that made it 69-59.
A 3-pointer with 3:11 left by Novosel made it a 13-point game and capped the scoring for the night, handing UConn its first double-digit home loss since Dec. 5, 2005, against the Tar Heels.
The defeat left UConn in an unfamiliar position, searching for answers going into the postseason.
"Our team has no fight," coach Geno Auriemma said. "We're the kind of fighters that throw punches and if you keep backing up, we'll keep punching you. But if you punch us back, we're going to run and hide."
The Irish swept the season series from the Huskies and have won three straight overall against UConn, including last season's victory in the national semifinals. North Carolina was the last team to win three in a row from UConn, doing so from 2004-07.
The Huskies showed a bit of grit in the first meeting between the teams this season, an overtime loss in South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 9. The rematch turned out to be a lot less competitive in the end and that concerned the Hall of Fame coach.
"This team has not improved since the last time we played Notre Dame," Auriemma said. "I would have thought we would have made great strides and we have not. It's one of the few years that I can remember that has been the case."
The Huskies fell to third in the conference, losing the tiebreaker to St. John's, which ended UConn's 99-game home winning streak on Feb. 18.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points and Stefanie Dolson added 18 for UConn (26-4, 13-3), which has now lost consecutive games at home for the first time in 19 years.
"They put great pressure on us and we backed up and didn't fight back," Dolson said. "We didn't play Connecticut basketball at all. When things weren't going right we took it one-on-one to the basket. It can't be like that. When things like that happen we have to fight back as a team."
This was 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 the last 17 years.
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