Ten years ago, as chronicled in Jeff Goldberg's new book "Bird at the Buzzer," one of the epic women's college basketball games was played, with UConn defeating Notre Dame in the Big East tournament finals on a shot by Sue Bird at the buzzer.
Part of what made the whole game somewhat surreal was that with a mid-season victory by Notre Dame, UConn played the Big East tourney on their own home court, in their blue road uniforms, as the number two seed. So as they say, history repeats itself and with a victory over UConn this weekend, Notre Dame will put themselves in position to do it again in 2011; it would tie the two teams on top of the Big East, and a coin flip would determine the top seed.
So can the Irish do the unthinkable, and beat the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion?
In 2001, Notre Dame used the Big East tourney loss as a springboard to the National title. A major part of what has made the games so legendary, in hindsight, is the participants themselves. Among them, Notre Dame had Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey, and Alicia Ratay. UConn had Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Shea Ralph and Diana Taurasi. All were amazing college basketball players. Both coaches, Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame, were still trying to prove they belonged in the conversation of elite coaches. I talked to Coach McGraw about her championship Notre Dame team.
Jump to 2011, Auriemma has won seven titles and is in both the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Hall of Fame. Coach McGraw has been elected, and will be inducted this year, into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. They have earned their spots as two of the best women's coaches around. Making the Hall of Fame, though, is something very special to Coach McGraw.
One of the 2001 Notre Dame team's fans was a 5th grade girl, who was hooping it up for her elementary school. She was a huge fan of the Irish, and used to go see them play. When there was an autograph session held, the little girl made sure she made it there, in her uniform. It was an experience that she will never forget. That girl will have a huge impact on this year's UConn-Notre Dame game: Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame's dynamic and captivating point guard.
Jump to 2011, and Skylar Diggins is living the dream. A local product, who cheered for the school as a girl, wanted to play there for that coach, wanted to attend the school academically....it doesn't get much better for her than that.
The first time these two teams met, in South Bend, UConn survived a great game, 79-76. UConn was on the heels of their streak-ending loss to Stanford. Despite a huge snowstorm, the Joyce Center was rocking. Devereaux Peters controlled the paint for the Irish (17 points, 11 rebounds). The backcourt of Diggins and Natalie Novosel each scored 16, but UConn made them work hard for them, holding them to a combined 11-33 shooting day. Maya Moore poured in 31 for UConn, on 11-21 shooting, but in the end it was Kelly Faris who did the damage for the Huskies, scoring 20 points, including a perfect 10-10 from the line.
Coach McGraw discussed the 2011 Irish, and broke down her team.
The Irish have a great mix of experience and youth, and strength inside and outside. Their 22-4 record is no fluke, and their only losses are all to ranked teams: at Kentucky, at Baylor, UCLA (2 OT) and UConn. They score 81 points per game, and are holding their opponents to only 53. Despite only being a sophomore, Diggins is clearly the leader and driving force of this team. She has made the adjustment from off guard to the point this year, she leads the team in minutes by a wide margin, and is second to Novosel in scoring. She has more than double the next highest on the team in assists, and it's her speed that kicks the Irish fast break into gear. Skylar talked about the significance of the team's difficult schedule and also for her thoughts on her teammates.
Dishin & Swishin: Skylar Diggins on this year's team & its tough schedule
Part of what is so impressive about Skylar Diggins is her preparation, and her knowledge of not just the game, but her opponents. As we head into the Big East post-season, and the conference tournament coming up, Diggins discussed the conference as a whole, and the difficult players that are on the court night after night.
So, ten years later, can history repeat itself? Going into Gampel Pavilion on Saturday and defeating UConn to force that Big East conference tie will be very difficult. Being the top or second seed, defeating Connecticut at the XL Center in Hartford for the Big East title will be very difficult. BUT...on a neutral court, in the NCAA tournament...can Notre Dame make lightning strike twice? Can Notre Dame be a Final Four team and a national championship candidate. For that answer, let's go to ESPN analyst Kara Lawson on Notre Dame's chances: