All week, Notre Dame prepared for the Tennessee women’s basketball team that was ranked No. 10 earlier this season.
Even though the Irish were playing the Lady Vols, who had lost five straight.
Thursday night, in its 77-62 victory, Notre Dame saw both ends of the Tennessee spectrum.
The Irish (19-1) got one of the nation’s best in the first 20 minutes and trailed by three. Then came the Tennessee (12-7) team that has freshmen and sophomores chewing up more than 80 percent of the game minutes.
Top-ranked Notre Dame’s talent and experience overcame the early shortcomings to keep its run of success alive at 12 straight wins.
After struggling with just two points in the first quarter, Arike Ogunbowale caught fire and led the Irish with 28 points. Jackie Young had a triple-double: 16 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Brianna Turner and Jessica Shepard each scored 13.
Zaay Green led Tennessee with 19 points, 15 of which came in the first half.
“I was happy with the second half,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “The first half, we were way out of rhythm.”
Tennessee’s early rebounding edge caused a lot of those concerns. McGraw pointed to the Lady Vols’ passion as playing a role in Turner having just one rebound in the first half.
“They were just so aggressive and active,” McGraw said. “It took a while for us to adjust to them.
“When they’re scoring so much, It’s hard for us to run.”
When the ship was taking on water, it was Young who kept the Irish afloat. She did the dirty work inside and quietly made a significant impact.
“She’s been the glue that kind of keeps us together,” McGraw said of Young. “She does everything well. She’s not as flashy as some of our players, so she doesn’t get as much credit.”
Young just shrugged at the accomplishment. She didn’t know she did anything special until a TV interviewer told her.
“I guess I’m excited,” she said.
Notre Dame missed its first six 3-point shots before Ogunbowale fractured the lid on the basket with 7:15 left in the third quarter. The Irish followed that swish with a defensive stop and a layup by Shepard that gave them a 41-39 advantage.
Notre Dame’s recovery was methodical and, at times, almost painful to watch. Tennessee was a physical team that took away so much of what makes the Irish special.
The Lady Vols battled for every rebound, harnessed Notre Dame’s transition game through most of the first half. But they didn’t have the production to pull away.
A 12-4 run late in the third quarter and a Marina Mabrey 3-pointer to start the fourth put Notre Dame in control, 58-46. Once it got to double figures, the Irish rode the momentum.
Ogunbowale resisted the temptation to get too concerned over her early frustration.
“At halftime, my focus was to stay calm,” Ogunbowale said. “I’ve gotta really work on my start, but I knew there were 20 minutes left. If I stayed focused, it would work out.”
Notre Dame weathered a blizzard of first-half concerns and still only trailed by three at the break, 34-31.
The Irish missed 11 of their first 12 shots, were battered on the offensive glass, 10-4, and still were within striking distance.
Turner had 10 points, Shepard nine and Young eight.
Without efficiency on the boards, the Irish were taken out of their transition game. Without that quick burst up the floor, Notre Dame lost a part of its identity. The Irish had just six points off the fast break.
Tennessee freshman Green was able to exploit Notre Dame’s lapses on defense. The 6-foot guard scored 15 at the break.
Even though they were wallowing in shooting woes, the Irish never lost touch. Shepard’s three-point play with 2:32 left in the first quarter trimmed the Tennessee lead to 11-7.
During one stretch of more than five minutes in the second quarter, the Irish connected on six straight shots — mostly in the paint, and took the lead, 29-28, on a Turner layup.
Tennessee finished the first half shooting just 39 percent (16 of 41), but its dominance on the offensive boards made the lead possible.
NOTRE DAME (19-1): Shepard 6-13 1-4 13, Turner 5-8 3-5 13, Ogunbowale 11-21 4-7 28, Young 4-8 8-10 16, Mabrey 2-7 0-0 5, Prohaska 0-1 2-2 2, Nixon 0-0 0-0 0, Vaughn 0-0 0-0 0, Patterson 0-0 0-0 0, Cosgrove 0-1 0-0 0, Benz 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-59 18-28 77.
TENNESSEE (12-7): Davis 3-14 0-0 6, Westbrook 6-14 2-2 16, Kushkituah 1-3 2-2 4, C. Green 3-12 1-1 7, Z. Green 9-21 1-1 19, Harris 1-3 0-2 2, Burrell 0-2 0-0 0, Collins 1-2 0-0 2, Massengill 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 27-76 6-8 62.
Notre Dame 14 17 24 22—77
Tennessee 17 17 12 16—62
3-Point Goals—Notre Dame 3-12 (Ogunbowale 2-6, Mabrey 1-5, Prohaska 0-1), Tennessee 2-14 (Westbrook 2-5, Z. Green 0-5, Davis 0-3, Burrell 0-1). Rebounds—Notre Dame 43 (Young 12, Shepard 11, Turner 8), Tennessee 41 (C. Green 11, Z. Green 8). Assists—Notre Dame 23 (Young 10, Mabrey 4), Tennessee 9 (Z. Green 5). Turnovers—Notre Dame 13 (Mabrey 3, Ogunbowale 3), Tennessee 11 (Westbrook 3). Steals—Notre Dame 7 (Mabrey 2, Ogunbowale 2, Shepard 2), Tennessee 9 (C. Green 4). Blocked shots—Notre Dame 5 (Turner 4), Tennessee 2 (Harris 1, Burrell 1). Total fouls (fouled out)—Notre Dame 10 (none), Tennessee 23 (Davis). Technical fouls—none. A—9,154.