Updated at: 04/02/2013 10:05 PM
By HANK KURZ Jr.
(AP) NORFOLK, Va. - Her voice hoarse after another disappointment in a regional final, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie was in no rush to put a positive spin on a season in which the Blue Devils overcame a series of obstacles.
"I think there is a time for that," McCallie said, "but this one should stick with us for a long time. ... You need to own up to what happened, why it happened and think about it a little bit."
The Blue Devils (33-3) led top-seeded Notre Dame 37-31 at halftime, then had no answer when the Fighting Irish put foul trouble behind them and turned up the pressure behind All-American Skylar Diggins.
"The difference came from us and them," said Tricia Liston, who led Duke with 19 points. "They came out much more aggressive in the second half on offense and we did not come out with the same aggression defensively. For whatever reason, we were not focused and concentrated on the same things."
Notre Dame (35-1) wasted little time taking advantage, using a 15-2 run to take the lead and remaining comfortably ahead the rest of the way en route to an 87-76 victory and a return to the Final Four.
The Blue Devils’ season came to end in a regional final for the fourth consecutive season.
Foul trouble hurt Duke mightily as point guard Alexis Jones, who took over the job when All-American Chelsea Gray dislocated her kneecap 11 games ago, got her fourth with 15 minutes to play.
"Once Lex went out, we stopped focusing on defensive stops. It turned into a game of trading buskets and that’s not the type of game that we wanted to be in," forward Elizabeth Williams said.
It was also something of a reverse of the first half when Diggins drew two quick fouls and was hampered from playing her usual aggressive game. She and Notre Dame came out with new life after halftime.
Diggins scored 24 points and Notre Dame rallied to earn its third consecutive trip to the Final Four.
The Fighting Irish finished with 25 assists on 29 baskets, an astounding percentage.
Duke, meanwhile, had just 11 assists on its 28 field goals, and also turned the ball over 21 times.
"That’s not what we’re about," McCallie said.
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 UConn.
It’s the third straight meeting between the two Big East rivals in the Final Four. The Irish won both those and have dominated the series lately, winning seven of the past eight meetings.
Notre Dame swept all three meetings with UConn this season in thrilling fashion winning in overtime and by 1 and 2 points.
The Irish had to rally past Duke to get there.
Trailing by six at the half, Notre Dame took control quickly.
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.
"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."
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 Williams started a 13-0 run that took more than six of those minutes. Tricia Liston scored eight in the burst and Chloe Wells finished it with a 12-foot jumper.
Diggins returned with about 8 minutes to go in the half and while playing passively on defense to avoid a third foul, hit three 3s 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 eight 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.
Liston led Duke with 19 points while Peters added 15.
Follow Hank on twitter at: http://twitter.com/hankkurzjr
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)