UConn's final possession may have been the worst in a big moment in the history of the program. Skylar Diggins stole the ball. Notre Dame stole UConn's heart. Again. Again. Again.
Yet it wasn't until the Notre Dame women gathered in a chorus line following their dramatic Big East tournament triumph and began dancing the jig to their band's playing of "Rakes of Mallow," that the thought crossed my mind.
This really was an Irish wake, or at least the basketball equivalent of it.
In the days and hours leading into the Big East men's tournament at Madison Square Garden there have been various calls in the media for this week to become an Irish wake or sorts. As the league — at least as we know it — takes its final gasps, the reasoning has been this: What better moment to visit and revisit the greatest times of more than 30 years of basketball?
Who knew the UConn women would take it so literally?
On a day when Notre Dame officially announced it was leaving for the ACC in July, on a night when the Big East brought down its curtain both on the women's tournament and the tournament run at the XL Center, the Huskies died one more excruciating basketball death at the hands of the Irish.
These are the headlines.
•UConn failed to win either the Big East regular season or tournament title for the first time since 1993. Two decades, one, the other, or usually both titles — an unreal streak.
•UConn failed to hit a three-pointer for the first time since it won the national championship against Oklahoma in 2002. Eleven years, raining threes, with the best shooter in the nation in Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis Tuesday night — an unreal streak of 403 games.
The good news is at least the Huskies didn't lose a game when they had a lead with less than a minute remaining as they had in the three previous meetings with Notre dame. The horrible news is they had the ball with the game tied coming out of a timeout with 18 seconds remaining. And they butchered it.
"I really feel bad for these guys," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I thought they played an amazing second half."
Want to know something really amazing? The Huskies have lost only 11 games in five seasons and seven of them have come against Notre Dame. That's seven of eight meetings. Notre Dame is more poised. Notre Dame is more poised. Did I say Notre Dame is more poised?
As Auriemma was quick to point out, Kayla McBride made big shot after big shot. The way she comes off screens, big strong, looking almost too strong to own a soft shot, yet releases the ball as if it is a butterfly is something to behold. McBride, 23 points, tournament MVP, and she deserved all of it.
Still, if anybody walks away from the past few years saying anyone other Skylar Diggins is the greatest opponent in UConn history, well, they're faking it. They're relying on the argument of pure greatness of a Candace Parker or a Holdsclaw or a Griner. Nobody has dug down deeper when it matters most against UConn than Diggins.
One thing before we get into the last play, maybe the worst play in UConn women's history when it mattered. One thing before we bemoan how UConn had a lead at the end of the Final Four game in Denver and lost in overtime. One thing before we bemoan how the Huskies had a lead at Gampel Pavilion at the end in January and lost by one, and had a lead in South Bend at the end last week and lost in triple overtime. And this is the thing.
As much as been said about her terrific leadership, clutch offensive play and sometimes wayward shot, Diggins is a tremendous defender. "A lot of players can't guard the dribble," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She is able to pick up players in the backcourt and force turnovers. But her defense is excellent because she has so much pride. She does not want you to score on her."
All true, yet Diggins' final steal, the one that made all the difference, was more of a fair catch than any sort of great turnover. With the score tied, with the great chance to prove that this team of the past few years can win the big one when it matters, the Huskies butchered it. Breanna Stewart, who played her best big-time game, is a freshman. Mosqueda-Lewis, who battled foul trouble and had one of her worst big-time games, is a sophomore. Stefanie Dolson, who led UConn with 18 points and 14 rebounds, is a junior. The Huskies are in position to run off national championships in 2014 and 2015.
Yet this is 2013 and, over and over, they haven't proven they can beat the best; they can't beat Baylor or Notre Dame.
On this night, coming out of a timeout, Kelly Faris threw a long looping pass from the sidelines that Stewart had to make a terrific leaping grasp to maintain control. Why the need for heroics off the inbounds and so much time left is baffling.
"We ran a little misdirection thing and Kaleena was wide open at the top of the circle," Auriemma said. "We got [Stewart] for a layup on the lob, so Kelly was looking for that. [Stewart] made a great catch and the next time she is in that situation, she is going to square up and and catch it again and attack the basket and get a foul. She is too young to understand that right now.
"It's one of those plays where you only need two, so a score and a foul or just a foul [is enough]. When [Stewart] caught it I thought we were in great shape. I probably should have called a timeout when she dribbled down and passed it [to Farris]. I take responsibility for that."
Faris got the ball back. UConn could have called another timeout to reset. Instead Faris cut toward the baseline and threw a harried pass deep into to the left corner to Mosqueda-Lewis. It would prove disastrous. KML was off-balanced, in no position to shoot and in a panic she threw what amounted to a soft fly ball to Diggins out near midcourt. Wrong person. Wrong time.
Diggins dribbled down court. UConn only had five fouls, so they had one to give.
"I did my best to foul her," Bria Hartley said.
"I think we fouled [Diggins] three times," Auriemma said. "I guess it took a long time for them not to call fouls on us. But they picked the wrong time. We just didn't want to make it look intentional. As it turned out we would have had to tackle her."
One of the unfortunate facts of the night for UConn was Faris' shot with 18 seconds left hit the rim, but the officials were unsure. They couldn't let the shot clock continue running, because if they ruled wrong, it would have unfairly given UConn the last shot. So they blew the whistle.
"We wanted to win without the timeout," Auriemma said. "We wanted to keep flying. That forced us to take a timeout [on top of the official's stoppage]."
Off the steal, Diggins glanced at the clock. She said she saw eight seconds.
"I took it down court and that's the fastest I've ever seen Natalie [Achonwa] run," Diggins said. "I actually was trying to draw a foul, but they let it go. I'm glad they did."
Achonwa, who was in foul trouble all night, might have had the line of the night in explaining her great burst of speed.
"In my head, I only played four minutes," said Achonwa, who actually played 14. "Before that last play, Skylar said, 'They're tired.' I've got all the energy in the world. I saw my man leak out and I had to get to the basket."
Achonwa scored with 1.8 seconds left.
"Rakes of Mallow."