Irish celebrate outright Big East title

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Notre Dame had a ride to the airport and the flight back to Indiana after the Irish's 72-59 victory over UConn on Monday. Meanwhile, the Huskies had to bus the 26 miles back from the XL Center to their Storrs campus. But guess which one probably felt like the longer trip?

The Irish clinched the Big East regular-season title all alone with their win in the same enemy territory to which they'll soon return for the Big East tournament. This was their first outright conference title since 1995, when the Irish were still in what was back then called the Midwest Collegiate Conference. (It's now the Horizon League.)

Notre Dame senior guard Natalie Novosel was 5 years old then. The next year, the Irish would move to the Big East, where they would share the league's regular-season title with UConn in 2001. Notre Dame would go on to win the NCAA championship that season.

The Irish have beaten UConn twice in Final Four matchups, in 2001 and last year. But they haven't ever celebrated a solo Big East regular-season title, let alone done so on the Huskies' home turf.

Not that there was necessarily a ton of celebrating, actually, right after the game. The Irish were headed home to do a little of that, though, including cutting down the nets at the Joyce Center before hitting the hay.

"I actually don't have class on Tuesdays," Novosel said, grinning, about how maybe she could sleep in a bit. Then again, she might not have wanted to.

"I bet everyone else will be getting up and going to class," she said, "and probably wearing their [Big East champion] shirts. We're definitely proud."

The No. 3-ranked Irish should be. Now 28-2 overall and 15-1 in the Big East, they will be the top seed in the conference tournament. Their only losses were Nov. 20 at Baylor, and the surprise upset: 65-63 at the hands of West Virginia at home on Feb. 12.

But UConn also suffered a stunning loss at home, 57-56 against St. John's on Feb. 18. Since the Irish had won their first game against the Huskies -- 74-67 in overtime on Jan. 7 at Notre Dame -- it meant that Monday's matchup was for the outright title if the green folks could win.

A loss would have meant that Notre Dame and UConn were co-champions again, as they had been in 2001. But as far as UConn coach Geno Auriemma was concerned, though, that would have been meaningless to a program that has essentially owned the Big East and has seven NCAA titles.

"For all intents and purposes, I could care less about that," Auriemma said about not getting the co-title. "You don't come to Connecticut to tie Notre Dame for the Big East championship. We don't hold parades for ties around here.

"We lost the Big East championship against St. John's. So that was over and done with. Tonight was more about [that] we need to start finding out, 'Who can we count on going forward?'"

Auriemma's vocal contempt for sharing a title was clearly a message of "you better get with it" he was sending his players. But it likely sounds rather contemptuous to Irish ears.

Not that Auriemma, worried about the Huskies' motivation, really cares. For that matter, neither does Irish coach Muffet McGraw, who knows that Auriemma says a lot of things when he's mad at his team. Plus, McGraw is hardly the sentimental or overly emotional type. When Novosel and junior guard Skylar Diggins talked in the news conference about wanting to help their "Hall of Fame coach accomplish something she hadn't [done before]," you could see the mirthful look on McGraw's face. Kind of like: Thanks, guys, but don't get all mushy on me, here.

That said, McGraw -- in her 25th season at Notre Dame and, we should now acknowledge, a candidate for coach of the year -- was very pleased. Notre Dame has finished second or tied for it seven times in the Big East regular-season standings.

"I'm happy for them, and I appreciate they're happy for me to win the first one," McGraw said. "I hope they get the chance to have a few more. But I love this group. They do make my job so much easier.

"I think everybody in the country probably feels like they're in UConn's shadow. They've got a great program. We have complete respect for Geno and what he's done here. It's nice to come in and win here because we have not done it before."

The Irish did it Monday with a balanced offensive attack, led by Novosel's 21 points and Diggins' 20 -- and with an especially strong second-half defense. The Huskies shot 51.9 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes, but just 34.5 percent after the break.

Forward Devereaux Peters had nine points and led the Irish on the boards with 15; Notre Dame outrebounded UConn 42-31. Peters also had three assists, three blocked shots and two steals.

"It is really exciting; you want to enjoy the moment," said Peters, a fifth-year senior who endured two ACL injuries in her first two years at Notre Dame, redshirting in 2008-09. "This is not the end of the season, but it's still something special. It's been a long ride for me, but I really believe everything happens for a reason. If I hadn't gotten hurt, I wouldn't still be here playing with this team right now.

"When you're hurt, you have to think there's some meaning behind it. You have to look toward the long term, and what you can do when you get back. You have to hone in on your passion for the game."

Of course, the Irish are well aware that this is just one step; they still hope to win a Big East tourney title and the national championship, which eluded them by one game last year. Yet this regular-season title really does matter to Notre Dame.

"This was one of our goals -- and we earned it," Novosel said. "We took a bump against West Virginia, but we got lucky with UConn losing to St. John's. We didn't want to share it. We wanted the title solo."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.