Notre Dame, Baylor advance to Tuesday night’s national final

Posted April 02, 2012, at 12:02 a.m.

DENVER — Notre Dame is back in the national championship thanks to Skylar Diggins’ steady leadership and Brittany Mallory’s clutch shooting.

Diggins scored 19 points, Mallory hit two big 3-pointers in overtime and the Irish beat Connecticut 83-75 on Sunday night.

The two hooked up for a game-turning play in overtime when Diggins stood her ground on a fast break, blocked the shot to prevent the Huskies from retaking the lead, then fed Mallory at the other end for her second important 3.

“That was game-saving. That was huge,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “That would have turned it around if they made that layup. She sprinted the floor, made that huge play. It gave us such a big momentum lift, and Britt hitting that 3 made it a huge play.”

Notre Dame (35-3) also beat the Huskies (33-5) in the semifinals last year, ending Maya Moore’s brilliant career and the Huskies’ bid for a third straight national championship. But the Irish stumbled 48 hours later, losing to Texas A&M in the title game in Indianapolis.

Unfinished business has been their mantra all season, and now they get a chance to take care of business Tuesday night against Baylor. The Lady Bears advanced with a 59-47 victory over Stanford.

Connecticut and Notre Dame were tied at 67 after regulation. UConn closed with an 8-2 run that was fueled by a series of hustle plays from Kelly Faris, who had a steal and a basket and four free throws in the final 90 seconds.

The Huskies, who were led by Stefanie Dolson’s 20 points despite foul trouble, stretched their run to 11-2 when Bria Hartley opened the extra period with a 3-pointer.

The Huskies had the ball again after a missed free throw but Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis fired up an off-target 3-pointer early in the shot clock and UConn never recovered.

Diggins’ best play came on defense. With Notre Dame clinging to a 73-72 lead, the Huskies had a 2-on-1 fast break but Diggins held her ground and blocked Hartley’s layup attempt, and the Irish scored the next eight points to ice it.

“We put ourselves in a position to win the game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “The last two minutes, minute and a-half of regulation were pretty amazing. As most games do, it turned on one great play by a great player.

“In overtime we didn’t have enough. We took a chance on making it difficult, but Brittany Mallory made two huge shots. That’s who we wanted to take the shots, and God bless her, she made them.”

Mallory was 0 for 4 from behind the arc in regulation.

“It was a big sigh of relief when that first one went in,” she said.

BAYLOR 59, STANFORD 47: Brittney Griner was constantly hounded and double-teamed, scoring only one basket in the second half. So the Baylor supporting cast jumped in and carried the unbeaten Lady Bears to the national championship game.

Griner finished with 13 points and nine rebounds to lead Baylor to a 59-47 win over Stanford on Sunday night and into the women’s NCAA final against Notre Dame.

Baylor (39-0) is one victory from becoming the seventh team to finish undefeated and has a chance at being the first squad in NCAA history to win 40 games in a season.

Stanford (35-2) fell short in the Final Four for the fifth straight season, ending its school-record 32-game winning streak.

The Cardinal refused to let the 6-foot-8 Griner beat them, collapsing on her in the paint. The strategy worked for the first 20 minutes before the other Lady Bears started making shots.

Trailing 31-29 early in the second half, the Lady Bears went on an 11-1 run keyed by Jordan Madden. The junior guard had an acrobatic three-point play and then a layup that made it 40-32. Griner followed with her only basket of the half, hitting a tough baseline turnaround that capped the burst.

The Cardinal could only get within six the rest of the game despite Nnemkadi Ogwumike’s best efforts. The senior led the Cardinal with 22 points and nine rebounds. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer took her out with about 30 seconds left and gave her a long embrace.

The 6-foot-2 forward, who will most likely be the top pick in the WNBA draft on April 16, did all she could to keep the Cardinal in the game, but got little help. Her younger sister, Chiney, who had such a strong sophomore season, was ineffective. She fouled out midway through the second half with just four points.

Baylor has been focused with the mantra of “Unfinished Business” all season long. Every player on the team is wearing a wristband with those two words on it. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said the team used the same motto the year it won its only title in 2005. The Lady Bears had been knocked out the year before on a tough last-second lost.

Stanford could easily claim that motto for itself, having matched UConn and LSU with its five-year Final Four run. But like the Lady Tigers, the Cardinal couldn’t win a title during their run. Stanford hasn’t won a national championship since 1992.

These two teams hadn’t played since 2008 — the year before Griner showed up, but Ogwumike and her Cardinal teammates were eager for the chance. Ogwumike faced Griner in an AAU game back in high school, and that’s when she insists she learned to shoot 3-pointers because scoring in the paint was a big problem. Although Ogwumike missed all five of her 3-point attempts, she succeeded in drawing Griner away from the basket.

That opened up the middle, allowing the Cardinal to get a lot of easy backdoor layups. On the defensive end, the Cardinal packed it in, doubling Griner every time down the court. They dared any other Baylor player to beat them. Griner finished the first half taking just five shots, while her teammates combined to go 7 for 24.

The Lady Bears led 25-23 at the break as neither team could build more than a four-point lead in the first half.

Stanford didn’t change its strategy in the second half, but the other Baylor players started making plays.

Terran Condrey scored 13 points and Odyssey Sims had 11 for the Lady Bears.

As usual, Griner put on a show in warmups, thrilling the crowd with a series of impressive dunks. The Associated Press Player of the Year has already dunked twice in the NCAA tournament. The junior phenom has already matched Candace Parker for most dunks by a woman in the NCAA tournament and during their collegiate career.

Griner and Baylor football star Robert Griffin III have playfully talked about having a dunk contest next year. The Heisman Trophy winner was in the stands supporting the Lady Bears and gave Mulkey a big hug as they walked off the court.

Mulkey showed no ill effects from her bout with Bell’s palsy. She was recently diagnosed but on Saturday, she dismissed it as nothing more than an inconvenience.

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