By Doug Feinberg
The Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. —
Notre Dame is back in the Big East tournament title game for a third straight season, and the Fighting Irish hope their luck is about to change.
Kayla McBride scored 17 points and Skylar Diggins added 14 to help No. 2 Notre Dame beat 16th-ranked Louisville 83-59 on Monday night in the semifinals.
“It would mean a lot for our program,” Diggins said. “The first ever would be great. The year we’re hoping it would be wonderful to get one for coach (Muffet) McGraw. It’s the one thing we’re missing besides a national championship.”
Notre Dame has now reached the title game seven times since joining the conference in 1995, but the Irish have lost the previous six to perennial Big East powerhouse Connecticut.
“We wanted to play in South Bend,” McGraw said laughing. “For us we’re going in with the same mindset that we did with both the games this year. It’s tough to beat a team three times in a year. It’s going to be another battle and war. Regardless of the outcome, it will get us ready for the NCAA tournament win or lose.”
The top-seeded Irish extended a school record with their 25th straight victory. Only top-ranked Baylor, which handed Notre Dame its only loss this season, has a longer active winning streak.
The Irish (30-1) led the Cardinals by six at the half before opening the second period with a 13-2 run to take command. Louisville coach Jeff Walz got the play he wanted to start the second half when Antonita Slaughter had an open 3 — which she missed.
“It’s a six-point game at the half, and if that goes in it’s a three-point game,” he said. “We have some momentum in our favor. She couldn’t make it then they started scoring some in transition. They did a really nice job in scoring when they needed to.”
It only got worse for Louisville (24-8) as its deficit kept expanding. Notre Dame’s lead ballooned to 31 before Louisville closed the gap against the Irish reserves.
Shoni Schimmel scored 20 points and Sara Hammond added 12 to lead the Cardinals, who were playing their final game in the Big East conference. They still will play next season in the new football conference before bolting to the ACC in two seasons.
“It’s been a good six years for me,” Walz said. “They do a really nice job of putting on a good tournament here.”
Notre Dame will play either No. 3 UConn or 22nd-ranked Syracuse tonight in the championship game.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Diggins said. “It wouldn’t be disappointing (not to play UConn).”
The Irish have lost to the Huskies in the past two Big East tournament title games, but have otherwise dominated the rivalry recently. Notre Dame has won every other game against UConn over the past few seasons, including two in the Final Four.
This season, Notre Dame went 16-0 in the conference, including a one-point win at Connecticut in January before a triple-overtime thriller last Monday night.
The Irish had no such trouble with Louisville. With the exception of a 5-minute stretch in the first half, they were in firm command.
Notre Dame jumped out to a 12-0 lead before Schimmel started heating up, tying it at 16 on her second 3-pointer of the opening half. Diggins answered with two 3s of her own to make it 26-20, and the Irish led 32-26 at the half.
The Irish handed the Cards their worst loss of the season with a 93-64 victory Feb. 11.