The No. 2 Notre Dame women's basketball team defeated UConn to earn its first ever Big East title. (Jessica Hill/AP)

The No. 2 Notre Dame women’s basketball team and Skylar Diggins (left) defeated UConn to win its first ever Big East tournament championship. (Jessica Hill/AP)

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team celebrated its impending departure from the Big East with a stirring, last-second win over UConn on Tuesday in the Big East conference title game. The Irish will join the ACC next season, but are now focused on the NCAA tournament, which begins next Saturday. Curt Rallo of the South Bend Tribune joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: Notre Dame went 29-1 during the regular season, they are ranked No. 2 in the nation behind only Baylor, and they dismantled Louisville in the Big East semis. This may sound absurd but are they something of a dark horse going into the 2013 NCAA tournament?

CR: Well they weren’t expected to have this kind of success because they graduated three starters from last year’s team that reached the national championship game and two of those starters were first round draft picks in the WNBA, but they have a great leader in point guard Skylar Diggins, an All-American. And she’s just so determined that her, her will has kind of forced this team to grow up in a hurry. And some people are probably looking at them as being vulnerable, maybe a dark horse among the No. 1 seeds, but they’re still peaking so to speak. And they just have such a competitiveness about them that I think they will be in New Orleans in April.

BL: Notre Dame, of course, is best known for football. Where does women’s basketball now stand in the sports pantheon in South Bend?

CR: They’ve had 12 sellouts this year, it’s a school record. They attract probably an average of 8,500 fans a game. They’ve always had great support in the past at Notre Dame, but the fact that you have a hometown hero, so to speak, Skylar Diggins, who played at South Bend Washington High School, the interest just increased dramatically and so the popularity is quite remarkable.

BL: Are Notre Dame fans the kind of folks who travel and will fill arenas as Notre Dame moves through the tournament?

CR: Usually there’s a decent following on the East Coast and in Los Angeles where they have nice alumni clubs for Notre Dame. But one of the more remarkable things is Skylar Diggins has kind of become the face of women’s basketball. And when she was a sophomore, her popularity just exploded. She’s got like 300,000 Twitter followers, and the rapper Lil’ Wayne started wearing her jersey on stage at his concerts, and her popularity is unbelievable. Like when Notre Dame plays at Villanova or Seton Hall during the super storm, Seton Hall had its biggest crowd because Skylar was there. People drove through the snowstorm in New Jersey to see Skylar play. You’ll be at Milwaukee and you’ll see 12-year-old boys holding up signs that say “Skylar, please marry me.” It’s funny, when they introduced the lineups down at Tennessee, every Notre Dame starter got booed, and then they introduced Skylar and then there’s this big cheer, this big ovation. So the Skylar effect’s been interesting to see on the road.