HARTFORD, Conn. — Notre Dame and Connecticut provided a thrilling final act for the Big East.
The conference name will live on with the basketball schools that are separating from the football schools next year. But the Big East that has been arguably the best women’s basketball conference in the country over the past decade will be no more.
And, no other conference could compare.
From UConn winning seven national titles, five in the past 10 years, to four different teams making the Final Four in the past six seasons — including Notre Dame, which has been in the last two.
“It’s been an unbelievable run for us,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “They elevated our program and we owe a lot to the Big East for where our program is now.”
The conference set a record with nine teams making the NCAA tournament field three seasons ago.
Now the lights will dim on this women’s basketball juggernaut that has dominated the national landscape. The final game turned out to be another show-stopper with Notre Dame coming away with a 61-59 victory Tuesday night. It was the closest championship game since another classic — UConn’s two-point win over the Irish in 2001 when Sue Bird hit a memorable shot at the buzzer to win it.
That was one of the six times that Notre Dame faced UConn in the title game and fell short. Tuesday night was the Irish’s turn to come away with a victory.
“It’s the best conference in the country, the most competitive, it’s just been amazing,” said Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, who is the conference’s two-time reigning player of the year. “You’re going to be challenged by any Big East team you come up against. It’s just been great for me to come into this league at Notre Dame. To be part of the last Big East game, I’m glad I finished it in this league.”
Natalie Achonwa made a lay-in with 1.8 seconds left to lift the second-ranked Irish to the win over the No. 3 Huskies — a wonderful closing chapter in a rich history of women’s basketball.
“It’s sad, sure,” said Villanova coach Harry Perretta, who was part of the Big East when it first started in 1983. “We are the best conference in the country. Anytime there’s something that’s good that goes away you’re sad. I don’t know how you look at it any other way than to look forward. I’ll always remember it fondly for what it was.”
The seven schools breaking away from major college football include some of the Big East’s most recognizable teams: Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova, Marquette and DePaul. None of them really has been consistently at the top of the current Big East, leaving the race for a title wide open next season.
“That unto itself will make the new league very exciting,” Perretta said. “The kids know. They aren’t dumb. We start the season and think we can get fourth or fifth. Now the goal at the beginning of the season is, ‘Wow, we could win,’ so that becomes very exciting.”
DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto agreed with Perretta.
“What’s exciting is what we enjoy on the men’s side currently in the conference: anyone can win it and move up and down pretty quickly,” she said. “That’s what will make this new conference great for the fans.”
It still is to be determined where the new conferences will play their tournaments next year. The current deal with the Hartford XL Center was going to expire this year even before the conference broke up.
The conference has had over a million fans attend the tournament over the past decade — the most by far in the country, so staying in Connecticut is a strong possibility for at least one of the new leagues.
Associate commissioner Danielle Donehew and the conference are hopeful that it will continue.
“We’re going to search around next year and do our due diligence to find somewhere for our conference to play,” she said.
Donehew said it’s been an amicable divorce so far between the schools, who want each other to succeed in the future.
“What the Big East has done in women’s basketball has certainly raised the level of the game,” she said. “It’s provided a platform for some teams to grow exponentially and the schools won’t forget that.”
And anyone who watched the finale Tuesday night won’t forget that anytime soon. Nor will the programs that were part of it.
“It was a great partnership that produced some memorable moments in a lot of sports. We are very sorry to see the Big East that we knew and grew up in not exist anymore,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said before the game.