By Hank Kurz Jr.
The Associated Press
NORFOLK, Va. — Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame are headed back to the Final Four for another rematch with Connecticut.
Before looking ahead, though, they wanted to soak in their third consecutive trip to the national semifinals.
“We’re enjoying the moment right now,” Diggins said when asked about UConn. “We’ll talk about that later.”
The flashy left-hander shook off early foul trouble to score 24 points and the Fighting Irish rallied to beat Duke 87-76 on Tuesday night to earn their third straight trip to the Final Four. The Irish have lost in the past two national championship games.
“I want to win a championship for coach (Muffet) McGraw bad,” Diggins, one of just two seniors on the Notre Dame roster, said. “When you have a coach who believes in you so much, I’d do anything for her.”
Kayla McBride added 18 points while Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa had 17 each as the Fighting Irish (35-1) won their school-record 30th consecutive game, earning a fourth meeting with the Huskies this season.
It’s also the third straight meeting between the two Big East rivals in the Final Four. The Irish won both of those and have dominated the series lately, winning seven of the past eight meetings. Notre Dame swept UConn in all three meetings this season in thrilling fashion, winning in overtime and by 1 and 2 points.
The Irish had to rally past Duke to earn the right to get there again.
Trailing by six at the half and looking disjointed without Diggins on the court, Notre Dame got back to playing the way it likes after the break and took control with a 15-2 run early in the second half to take a 50-42 lead.
“We talked in the beginning about leaving with no regrets,” Diggins said, adding that the first half could hardly have gone worse. “I think we were all pressing a little bit. We weren’t playing like we talked about.”
Diggins started the run with her fourth 3-pointer of the game and followed quickly with a no-look feed to Natalie Achonwa, who also grabbed 13 rebounds, for a layup that had drew an impressed roar from the crowd at Old Dominion’s Constant Center. Diggins added a steal and a layup, and McBride finished the burst with another 3-pointer.
Duke trailed by as many as 16 before closing the gap only slightly in the desperate final minutes.
“It bothers me a little bit that we had to fight so hard at the end. It was like, ‘Where’s that been?”’ Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “You’ve got to play 40 minutes at this level. It was inspiring but also a little irritating.”
The Blue Devils, who lost in the regional finals for the fourth straight year, hurt their cause with 21 turnovers.
In the first half, the game developed better than Duke (33-3) could have hoped.
Diggins was whistled for two fouls in the first 4:10 and went to the bench, and after McBride hit a pair of jumpers, the Fighting Irish looked out of sorts. They extended their lead to 17-13 on a 3-pointer by Kaila Turner and two free throws by Ariel Braker, then went more than seven minutes without a point.
A free throw by Elizabeth Williams for Duke ignited a 13-0 run that took more than six of those minutes. Tricia Liston, who led the Blue Devils with 19 points, scored eight in the burst and Chloe Wells finished it with a 12-foot jumper.
“I think they were outworking us,” said Diggins, who earned AP All-America honors for the second straight season earlier on Tuesday. “I’ve never seen that from my team. They were getting hustle scrap points. I couldn’t wait to get in that locker room. We had to light a fire. We set the tone on defense and got some stops and played our game.”
Getting their leader back helped greatly.
“Sky’s the best point guard in the country and she changes the game in everything she does,” Achonwa said. “Her being off the court for 20 seconds changes the game.”
Diggins returned with about 8 minutes to go in the half and while playing passively on defense to avoid a third foul, hit three 3-pointers in a span of 2:16, cutting a nine-point deficit to 32-31 with 1:07 left.
A basket by Williams and Wells’ 3 just before the half gave Duke a 37-31 advantage.
The weekend was a homecoming for Williams, a Virginia Beach native, but Duke’s scoring leader missed several shots from in close. She finished 3 for 9 and scored 8 points, roughly half her average.
“It’s really hard. We felt like we deserved to be here but we didn’t play a full game,” Williams said.
Haley Peters added 15 points and 10 rebounds for Duke, and Richa Jackson scored 12.
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