Updated at: 04/03/2013 2:06 AM
By HANK KURZ Jr.
(AP) NORFOLK, Va. - Skylar Diggins and the Notre Dame women’s team have a whole week to talk about playing Connecticut again.
After a near-flawless performance in the second half lifted the Fighting Irish to an 87-76 victory over Duke on Tuesday night, earning them their third straight trip to the Final Four, Diggins and her teammates wanted to drink it in.
"We’re enjoying the moment right now," the senior said with teammates Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride seated beside her and nodding their approval. "We’ll talk about that later."
Coach Muffet McGraw wasn’t biting, either.
"Not tonight," she said with a smile when asked to look ahead to another game against the Huskies.
The Irish had plenty to celebrate at Old Dominion’s Constant Center.
Diggins, the flashy left-hander named an All-American for the second year in a row earlier in the day, shook off early foul trouble to score 24 points and the Fighting Irish rallied and rolled past Duke.
They shot 62 percent after halftime and finished the night with 25 assists on 29 baskets.
"That is a pretty amazing number," McGraw said.
The Irish have lost in the past two national championship games but will arrive in New Orleans with a coach hoping to see her flashy point guard cut down the nets, and with Diggins wanting it just as badly for her coach.
"I want to win a championship for coach (Muffet) McGraw bad," said Diggins, one of just two seniors on the roster. "When you have a coach who believes in you so much, I’d do anything for her."
And she clearly doesn’t have to do it alone.
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 game in a row, earning a fourth meeting with the Huskies this season.
It’s also the third straight time the teams will meet in the national semifinals. The Irish won both of those and have dominated the series lately, winning seven of the past eight meetings. Notre Dame swept UConn in all three meetings this season in thrilling fashion, winning in overtime and by margins of one and two points in the other two games.
The Irish had to rally past Duke to earn the right to get there again.
Trailing by six at the half and looking disjointed without Diggins on the court, Notre Dame got back to playing up-tempo, transitional basketball after the break and took control with a 15-2 run early in the second half.
Diggins started the run with her fourth 3-pointer of the game and followed quickly with a no-look feed to Achonwa for a layup that drew an impressed roar from the crowd. 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 slightly in the desperate final minutes, and saw its season end in a regional final for the fourth straight year.
"It bothers me a little bit that we had to fight so hard at the end. It was like, `Where’s that been?’" Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "You’ve got to play 40 minutes at this level."
The Blue Devils also hurt their cause with 21 turnovers that led to 23 points for Notre Dame.
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 before going more than seven minutes without scoring.
A free throw by Elizabeth Williams ignited a 13-0 run by Duke that took up over six of those minutes. Tricia Liston, who led the Blue Devils with 19 points, scored eight in the burst and Chloe Wells finished it with a 12-foot jumper, giving Duke a 26-17 lead with five minutes to play in the half.
"I think they were outworking us," Diggins said. "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."
Getting their leader back with the foul trouble behind her helped greatly.
"Sky’s the best point guard in the country and she changes the game in everything she does," Achonwa said. "Her being off the court for 20 seconds changes the game."
Diggins returned with about 8 minutes to go in the half and, while playing passively on defense to avoid a third foul, hit three 3-pointers 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.
Haley Peters added 15 points and 10 rebounds for Duke and Richa Jackson scored 12.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)