RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Maryland ran out of comebacks at the worst possible time.
A Terrapins team that came from behind to win each of its first three NCAA tournament games wound up having a bad start and a worse finish Tuesday night, with Notre Dame rolling to an 80-49 victory in the Raleigh Regional final and claiming a spot in the Final Four.
Two days earlier, second-seeded Maryland (31-5) stormed back from 18 points down to beat Texas A&M in the regional semifinals, and that rally ultimately left the Terrapins empty when they needed to dig out of an even deeper hole against the top-seeded Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame raced out to a 19-point lead in the first half and wasted no time after halftime pushing it into the 20s and beyond.
Maryland simply couldn’t recover, and was denied its fourth Final Four trip and first since its national title in 2006.
“Obviously, tonight was Notre Dame’s night,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “I thought they were really spectacular. Really did a tremendous job on all ends of the floor. Beat us at our rebounding game, just destroyed us on the glass. … Our energy and effort, I felt, was spent in the game before.”
The Terrapins had no answer for Skylar Diggins, who had a triple-double with 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds — and, for good measure, five steals. She also kept Notre Dame’s four-guard lineup humming and gave the Terps fits all night.
“She went off on us tonight,” Maryland star Alyssa Thomas said, “and we really didn’t have an answer.”
Natalie Achonwa added 18 points while Kayla McBride had 16 and Natalie Novosel finished with 14 to help Notre Dame (34-3) claim its second straight Final Four berth and fourth overall. The Irish built a 46-27 rebounding advantage against low-post-oriented Maryland. A huge run late in the first half essentially ended this one at halftime.
“Our No. 1 point coming into this game was rebounding and boxing out,” the 5-foot-9 Diggins said. “I thought I’d get my
little self in there and see what I could do.”
All four No. 1 seeds are headed to Denver — the first time that’s happened since 1989 — so once the Irish arrive in the
Rockies, maybe they’ll find a close game there for a change. Only one of Notre Dame’s four tournament wins was closer than 31 points.
A loss in last year’s national championship game provided a season’s worth of focus and motivation for the Irish, who moved two victories away from the title that eluded them when Texas A&M rallied past them.
But before they can think about another title game, a familiar foe awaits: Connecticut, which beat Notre Dame 63-54 earlier this month in the Big East title game, though the Irish did win both regular-season meetings.
“This game is great momentum for us going into it, and our incentive is getting back to the championship,” Diggins said.
“That’s been our goal, which we’ve wanted to do all year. … There’s nothing, really, that you could tell us about UConn that we didn’t already know.”
Thomas scored 17 points and Tianna Hawkins and Alicia DeVaughn added 10 apiece for Maryland.
The location and scenario made for a disturbing parallel for the Terps’ seniors who were freshmen in 2009 when they won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title and breezed to the Raleigh Regional semifinal, only to come up short against a determined Big East opponent. Back then, it was Louisville.
This time, the Irish broke things open midway through the first half, holding the Terps without a field goal for roughly 5 1/2 minutes during a 26-7 run that pushed their lead well into double figures.
Diggins scored seven points during the run while Achonwa had eight, including a pretty layup off a pick-and-roll that put Notre Dame up 38-19 with 2:15 before the break.
That burst was marked by the strong guard play usually expected from Notre Dame — along with some impressive work underneath, where the Irish made all the hustle plays and got to nearly every loose ball and rebound. The rebounding margin was at its widest in the half when the Irish were up 22-9.
“We read a lot about Maryland’s rebounding and the size factor and I thought we did just a fantastic job in the half-court,
man-to-man, did a great job on the boards, scored any way we wanted to — we scored inside and out,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I couldn’t be prouder of this team, to handle the expectations all year long of being a No. 1 seed and the target on our backs, and to come through and make it back to the Final Four.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)