NORFOLK, Va. — Just getting to a regional final was probably accomplishment enough for a Duke womens basketball team that endured much adversity this season.
That did little to salve the pain the Blue Devils felt as Notre Dame cut down the nets at Old Dominions Ted Constant Convocation Center on Tuesday night.
Skylar Diggins scored 24 points and had nine assists to lead Notre Dame past Duke 87-76 in the NCAA tournaments Norfolk Region final.
The Irish (35-1) will head to the Final Four in New Orleans, where they will meet Big East archrival Connecticut in the national semifinals. Notre Dame will be attempting to beat UConn for the fourth time this season.
All three games have been close, including a triple-overtime Irish win at home last month, and a two-point victory in the Big East championship game in Hartford, Conn.
Duke (33-3), the ACC champion, lost one of its best players, point guard Chelsea Gray, to a knee injury on Feb. 17 against Wake Forest. Two games earlier, she scored 28 in a victory against Maryland.
We felt like we deserved to be here, said Elizabeth Williams, Dukes sophomore center from Virginia Beach. We just didnt play well enough.
Tricia Liston led the Blue Devils with 19 points. Haley Peters added 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Richa Jackson scored 12.
The Blue Devils were handicapped by foul trouble to freshman Alexis Jones, who replaced Gray at point guard. Jones fouled out and played just 26 minutes. Ball-handling was a problem for the Blue Devils, who had 21 turnovers.
We played half the game without our point guard, coach Joanne P. McCallie said. Its tough to win without your point guard. Weve been through so much this year. I never would have imagined we would go through all of this.
Yet for much of Tuesdays first half, the Blue Devils led. Even when Notre Dame rallied and took a 10-point lead in the second half, Duke fought back into the game, trimming the margin to six.
Notre Dame took the early lead, but then Diggins was called for her second foul four minutes and 10 seconds into the half and went to the bench. The Irish offense then went in the tank.
Notre Dame led 17-13 with 11:48 left when Duke went on a 13-0 run powered by Liston, who scored eight, mostly by working free and taking short jump shots. Chloe Wells finished the run by making a fast-break jump shot with 5:15 left that gave Duke a 26-17 lead.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw took a chance and inserted her star player back into the game with seven minutes left, and Diggins quickly began to chip away at the Duke lead.
She made three 3-pointers on four possessions, the last with 1:02 left that pulled the Irish to 32-31.
Duke rebuilt the lead to 37-31 on a hook shot from Williams and a 3-pointer by Wells with two seconds to go, but the Irish had blunted the Duke momentum.
Diggins quickly pulled Notre Dame even, making a 3-pointer 21/2 minutes into the second half, then found Natalie Achonwa with a no-look pass 22 seconds later.
With 5:37 left, Diggins drove for a fast-break layup that gave Notre Dame an 11-point lead.
Sensing the game was Notre Dames, she ran to midcourt, shaking her fist, and yelling, thats right, thats right to the lime-green clad Notre Dame fans in the crowd of 6,606.
The Blue Devils have much to look forward to next season all five starters return and McCallie hopes Gray will return as well.
Well be a lot better next year, she said. This one should stick with us for a long time. Its a tough loss.
But there will be a time to celebrate all that this team has done. This team accomplished so much.