Notre Dame put on a show that screamed gratitude to its fans, and just in case they weren’t sure on how much of it there was, Irish coach Muffet McGraw grabbed the house microphone immediately afterwards.
With a humming offense shifting a few times into overdrive and a mostly effective defense occasionally shifting looks, the Irish roared to an 83-65 Senior Night women’s basketball victory over North Carolina on Thursday at Purcell Pavilion.
Katlyn Gilbert scored 24 points, Sam Brunelle 23 and ex-Tar Heel Destinee Walker had all of her 14 through the first three quarters.
Marta Sniezek — one of two players honored on Senior Night along with first-time starter Katie Cole — celebrated with a career-high 14 assists, tying the third-best total in program history, against just two turnovers.
Cole and Sniezek checked out together for good at 1:30 remaining to hugs from their teammates and the Irish leading 78-58.
Notre Dame (12-17 overall, 7-10 ACC) closed the home portion of its season at a worst-ever 6-10, but with victories in its final two home outings over teams ahead of the Irish in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
“This season hasn’t been what any of us wanted,” McGraw told the crowd afterwards. But there have been lessons galore along the way.
“We learned about perseverance, we learned how to pick ourselves up after we got knocked down — time after time after time,” McGraw said.
“We learned how to fight, we learned how to be resilient, but there’s one thing we all need in our lives, the most important thing that you gave us, and that’s hope, hope that tomorrow’s gonna be better, next week and next year is gonna be better,” McGraw continued.
Said McGraw, “Every night when I walked out of the tunnel and saw all of you here, I’ve never been so grateful for the support you’ve given me and this team. It means so much to all of us.”
Carolina (16-12, 7-10), playing without top scorer and rebounder Janelle Bailey for the second straight contest following an undisclosed injury, suffered its sixth straight loss.
Already leading 43-32 at halftime, the eagerly ball-sharing Irish busted the game open with a 14-2 spree over the first 3:40 of the third quarter for a 57-35 advantage.
Within that spurt, four different players scored and four different players dished assists for the Irish. Notre Dame finished the night with 26 of its 33 buckets being assisted.
The Heels got no closer than 17 points after the 14-2 spurt and the Irish led by as many as 24 in the fourth quarter.
With Brunelle scored 14 first-half points and Walker 11 to take ND to its 43-32 lead at the break.
A trio of 3-pointers by sophomore backup Danielle Cosgrove in a span of 2:53 sparked the Irish to their largest first-half lead to that point, 43-31, at 1:44 before halftime.
Sniezek had nine assists by halftime and ND was 7-of-9 outside the arc at the half on its way to matching a season high with nine 3-pointers.
Taylor Koenen led Carolina with 19 points. Shayla Bennett added 17 points and six assists.
The Irish close their regular season Sunday at No. 19 Florida State (22-6, 11-6).
Sniezek and Cole’s parents were among the relatives and friends on hand as the two players were honored during Senior Night pregame ceremonies.
“I think Marta and Cole have given us those intangible moments of defense and taking charges,” McGraw said a day earlier about the pair known for their scrappiness. “They’ve given us that experience that an upperclassman has.”
Said McGraw of Sniezek, the grad-student transfer from Stanford, “It’s difficult to come in for one year and really leave a mark, and she has definitely left her mark.”
Added McGraw of Cole, “She has really given us a boost this year and been just a major contributor off the bench. Just to have her energy, what she does defensively, are things that don’t show in the stat sheet.”