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UConn at Notre Dame: What the Fighting Irish's Best Win Means Against The Huskies

Neither coach was particularly pleased after Notre Dame's 70-61 win over Gonzaga at Seattle University's State Farm Holiday Classic that concluded 2010.

And that's part of what explained the significance of the game to Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw.

"I think it's huge," said McGraw. "Right now, I think that's the best win on our tournament resume. Because I know that they're a NCAA tournament team, so it's nice to have beaten a team that I know is going to be in the NCAA tournament and to play 'em on the road I think makes it even better."

It's beyond just a cliched example of Notre Dame overcoming adversity to win - both teams might have played hard, but not particularly well.

"I don't think coach McGraw is probably all that pleased with her team and I'm certainly not pleased with how our team played tonight," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves.

In addition to Gonzaga being considerably closer to home at KeyArena in Seattle, Notre Dame committed 26 turnovers in what was a see-saw game, was down to Gonzaga at halftime, and neither team was able to establish much of anything until the Fighting Irish created some separation late in the game.

Yet perhaps the defining feature of the game - and really both of Notre Dame's games in the two game tournament - is that they won with subpar performances from Skylar Diggins, who could neither hit a free throw nor seem to control the ball against Gonzaga.

"Oh my goodness - I think we were just rushing and being careless with the ball and that started with me," said Diggins when asked about the team's 26 turnovers. "It started with me - I wasn't executing like I needed to. Just careless passes with the ball that could've been prevented with pass fakes...26 turnovers is another uncharacteristic thing that we don't do.

As a result of her shaky performance in the first game, Diggins was left off the All-Tournament team which might have come as a surprise to those for whom she is the only recognizable name on the team. It sounds cheesy, but Notre Dame might embody the notion of putting the team ahead of individual performances moreso than most who preach it.

Of course, even a quick glance at the boxscore will tell you that Diggins wasn't exactly reduced to a non-factor despite dissatisfaction with her perfomance.

In spite of poor shooting and 0-for-5 free throw shooting, what was perhaps most impressive about Diggins was something that is neither visible in the statsheet nor evident from simply looking back at the game film.

With 34 seconds left in the game and Gonzaga looking to intentionally foul, Diggins showed no loss of aggression on a night when she had turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of her possessions and couldn't hit a free throw. On a sideline inbound from about halfcourt, Diggins created separation from Gonzaga's Jazmine Redmon by throwing a forearm in her chest while yelling at her teammate, "Look at me! Look at me!"

Of course, that's what one might expect from a star of Diggins' caliber - she didn't become one of the most highly sought after high school recruits in the shadow of Brittney Griner for lacking confidence. However, it was also a shift from the past in which she can sometimes get wrapped up in an off-night like she had against Gonzaga.

"Skylar, early on missed free throws which really gets in her head sometimes and she really got frustrated with herself and then she hit the threes," said McGraw of a nail-in-the-coffin three pointer that Diggins hit down the stretch.

But as impressive as her unflappable confidence was, what becomes evident in watching Notre Dame closely is that the team is not a one-woman show despite what the hype might suggest. They're a team that's well-equipped to win, shooting over 50% as a team this season, without relying on the player who gets the majority of the attention.

"When you got rebounders like Becca (Bruszewski) and Dev (Peters) that's in there and then scorers like Natalie that can get in there and really put up points for you, when we all play together - offensively and defensively - we're dangerous and we see that," said Diggins.

In fact, Notre Dame is among the more balanced top tier teams in the nation with no single player accounting for more than 15% of the team's overall statistical production and nobody in the regular rotation accounting for less than 5%, which is a rarity even on the teams highly predicated on collective efforts.

As the team's leading scorer, Novosel's scoring performance was particularly impressive as she dropped a career-high 27 points on Gonzaga and perhaps made up for Diggins' free throw shooting struggles with a 9-for-9 performance of her own that was also not that surprising considering that she leads the team with a team-high free throw rate of nearly 60%.

Meanwhile, tournament MVP Devereaux Peters was credited with playing the role of sparkplug in the second half in drawing a technical that seemed to inspire the team. And in the second game against Loyola Marymount, that intensity translated to an outstanding defensive performance, in which she was literally everywhere - rebounding, blocking shots, playing passing lanes from the post, and stepping out to guard perimeter players as a 6-foot-2 forward.

"She's just such a fireball - I don't even know how to describe her," said Novosel. "She just is everywhere. Blocking shots - that's where she's most effective for us defensively."

And against Gonzaga, it was defense that ultimately won the game for Notre Dame rather than offensive firepower or their impressive balance. They held Gonzaga to under 30% shooting in the second half while shooting 50% themselves and finding a way to clamp down by catching them off guard by doing something that hadn't even shown up in the scouting report.

"I thought when they went to that 1-3-1, we hadn't seen that this year," said Graves. "At least in the tapes we got and we got five of them they hadn't shown that and I thought that knocked us a little out of kilter."

Against LMU on the second day of the tournament in the unofficial championship between the two winners from the first day, Notre Dame had a considerable size advantage but also showed a press that drew comparisons to UCLA's press that frustrated the Washington Huskies on the next day.

"UCLA is extremely athletic," said LMU coach Julie Wilhoit, whose team lost to Notre Dame 91-47 on the second day of the tournament. "And I think Notre Dame, they have athleticism within their players, but within their system they're very sharp and crisp. And what they look like - they're just a machine. They just are well-tuned, into each other, and they execute so well together...today, as everybody is preparing for conference, Notre Dame looks like they are really ready."

Not to overstate their potential in Big East play, but Notre Dame is a team that relies on multiple pieces to win games - statistically, Diggins is arguably not even one of their top three contributors - and showed the capacity last weekend to take their opponents out of their games. When asked about leadership on this extremely balanced team, McGraw identified a player who might go unnoticed statistically but has a poise that complements the scoring aggression of Diggins or Novosel.

"I think Brittany Mallory is our leader," said McGraw of her senior guard who assumes a large portion of ball handling responsibilities and is the team's second most efficient distributor with a solid pure point rating of 1.29. "She's sort of the unsung hero on this team - she's kinda the glue that keeps us going."

Notre Dame is as well-crafted a unit as any in the nation and the parts fit together perhaps better than they get credit for given the amount of attention Diggins gets. When they get clicking - as they did against an admittedly inferior LMU team - they can operate with machine-like efficiency.

That's not to say that they're quite as good as a team like Stanford that ended UConn's streak. But whereas Stanford relied heavily on Jeanette Pohlen to beat UConn, it's considerably more difficult to imagine Notre Dame beating UConn with one player carrying them - to even compete, it will take a combination of the aggressive defensive pressure they've shown, their balanced offensive attack, and even then a little bit of luck in defending Maya Moore or keeping the ball away from her.

Needless to say, it will probably stretch the limits of their ability to play as a unit and the Gonzaga game, while not the direct blueprint for a UConn win that Stanford had against Xavier, is at least a testament to the fact that they possess the intangible needed to go along with their balanced talent.

"We showed a lot of maturity tonight and a team that's been struggling finding that maturity down the stretch in being able to close games against great teams like Gonzaga," said Diggins. "We were able to find that tonight."