Even Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw is thinking about UConn and Irish III, so much so that for a brief moment Monday she forgot that the Huskies had a game to win first to set up the highly anticipated matchup.
Top-seeded Notre Dame handled fourth-seeded Louisville 83-59 in the Big East tournament semifinals at the XL Center. The Irish will play for the conference crown Tuesday at 7 p.m., setting up the third meeting of the season with the Huskies (who beat Syracuse) and a rematch of the last two Big East finals.
"It is tough to beat a team three times, it really is," McGraw said. "I think it is going to be another battle, another war. It will get us ready for the NCAA Tournament whether we win or lose … provided, Syracuse doesn't win."
Notre Dame, the No. 2 team in the country, was just too much for No. 16 Louisville to handle in the second half, turning a six-point lead at the break into a 24-point win. The two-time Big East Player of the Year, Skylar Diggins, led the way for the Irish, scoring 14, and adding six assists and four steals. Forward Natalie Achonwa scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds, Kayla McBride added 17 and five assists and Kaila Turner had 12 off the bench.
Notre Dame defeated UConn twice during the regular season, including a 96-87 triple-overtime win on March 4 to seal the Big East regular season championship.
"I don't [think who we play Tuesday] really matters to me," said Diggins. "I think a lot of people expect [UConn] to win here on their home court. … Either team is a great team who have played us tough all year. It will just be special to get the title no matter how we get it."
Tuesday night will be Notre Dame's sixth appearance in the Big East finals, but the Irish are 0-5 in their previous five trips.
The Irish, who never trailed Monday, opened the game on a 12-0 run, scoring easily in transition and in the paint. However, the Cardinals settled defensively using multiple zone looks to force Notre Dame into a slowed pace. Junior guard Shoni Schimmel (20 points, six rebounds) hit a pair of first-half threes, including one that tied the game at 16-16 with 11:18 to play before halftime.
"[Schimmel] created her shots and we were giving her the three, we didn't communicate," said Diggins. "We were supposed to be doubling up, but nobody guarded her. She is crafty and we put a hand in her face and made her take tougher shots."
Louisville was plagued by 18 turnovers, 10 in the first half, but was strong inside. Sophomore forward Sara Hammond was efficient in the paint, scoring 10 of her 12 points in the first half but the Notre Dame defense tightened noticeably after halftime.
"I thought our defense was really, really good in the second half," McGraw said. "We got some nice stops, stopped settling for threes, attacked the basketball and did a nice job of getting to the free-throw line."
Diggins seemingly had an answer to every Louisville run. The 5-foot-9 point guard connected three times from beyond the arc and dished out five assists to help the Irish build a 32-26 halftime advantage. Note Dame had a decisive advantage from distance, shooting 7 of 15 while the Cardinals hit just 3 of 18, as well as hitting twice as many free throws (20) as Louisville (10).
"[Notre Dame] is a very good basketball team," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz. "Skylar Diggins shot the ball very well, made some big shots for them, especially in the first half."
Notre Dame blew out Louisville in the schools' only other meeting of the season. Led by Diggins (21 points, seven assists, four steals) and Achonwa (22 points and 12 rebounds), the Irish cruised to a 93-64 victory on Feb. 11 in South Bend.