Notre Dame, Connecticut give Big East women's tournament a parting gift

Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson drives to the basket while

Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson drives to the basket while guarded by Notre Dame's Markisha Wright, right, in the second half. (March 12, 2013) (Credit: AP)

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HARTFORD -- In the last of the Big East women's basketball tournament finals Tuesday night, with longtime antagonists Notre Dame and UConn again fighting over the league title before both depart for separate conference affiliations, there was "not a whole lot of nostalgia going on," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

Instead, it was quintessential in-the-moment conflict, a lovely little war that wasn't settled until the final 1.8 seconds, when Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins stole an ill-advised UConn pass and fed Natalie Achonwa for an uncontested layup and a 61-59 victory.

But Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw did confess that the championship title -- Notre Dame's first after six previous failures against UConn -- was "special because it's the last one."

And she did make a point, as Notre Dame leaves for the ACC and UConn awaits the makeup and name of its new league, to "thank the Big East. It's been an unbelievable run for us since joining the conference," McGraw said. "It elevated our program. It's been exciting and we owe a lot to the Big East for where our program is right now."

Like all coaches, McGraw is aware that the wholesale nationwide dissolution of conference alignments is playing havoc with regional ties, fan identification and teams' recruiting. For Notre Dame to have played 18 years in a league whose women's basketball prestige flowed mostly from UConn -- 18 times the Big East Tournament champ and seven times national champion -- clearly brought a benefit in visibility and big-name branding.

Though there were perennial powers in women's college basketball before Auriemma turned UConn into a hoops colossus -- Immaculata, Delta State, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion before NCAA sponsorship began in 1982 and Tennessee, Texas and Stanford since -- only Tennessee's success compares with UConn, and most of Tennessee's seven national titles predated the ESPNization of the women's game.

By noting before Tuesday's game that Notre Dame, the NCAA champ in 2001 and runner-up the past two seasons, had been the only other Big East school besides UConn to win it all in women's hoops, Auriemma may have been reinforcing his previously stated allusions that the Big East needs UConn more than UConn needs the Big East.

In fact, of the 31 Big East women's tournaments, seven have been played at Gampel Pavilion on the UConn campus and the last 10 here in Hartford, 28 miles from UConn's Storrs campus. Though McGraw said before Tuesday's game that she would have liked to play the championship final at Notre Dame's South Bend, Ind., home, UConn's passionate fan base for its women's team always has assured crowds that never were approached at any other tournament site.

The farthest west the tournament ever was played was at Pitt in 1988, when the final drew 234 fans. The most recent non-Hartford championship game, at Rutgers in 2003, was attended by 3,968.

Notre Dame's regular presence among the Big East and national elite in recent years, and especially this third consecutive 30-plus win season, has brought it some of the highest home attendance marks in the country, filling its 9,149-seat home arena 30 times in the past five years -- more often against UConn, four times, than any other opponent.

So, something likely will be missing in the future. Diggins, the senior who twice has been named conference player of the year, called the Big East "the best conference in the country" and said she was "glad I finished my career in this league." But McGraw could see past the nostalgia to one advantage in the conference meltdown.

"That we won't have to play [UConn] three times in the year could be refreshing," she said.

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