SOUTH BEND — On Anaya Peoples’ birthday, it was fellow sophomore Sam Brunelle who got her wish down the stretch of seeing the ball in Peoples’ hands.
Peoples scored on back-to-back driving layups to give Notre Dame the lead for good during a wild 84-78 women’s college basketball win over No. 25-ranked and previously undefeated Virginia Tech on Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion.
“I have so much trust in (Peoples) with the ball,” said Brunelle, who scored a season-high 17 points in 26 minutes off the bench for the Irish. “We told her to go at that girl, because nobody can stop her with the ball. She has handles like nobody else in the ACC. We all had trust in her to get it to the basket, and that’s exactly what she did tonight.”
Freshman Maddy Westbeld eclipsed 20 points for the third straight game, this time netting a career-high 23 to go with six rebounds for the Irish. Brunelle’s season-high 17 points included 5-of-9 marksmanship from long distance, with at least four of her triples coming from at least a couple feet beyond the arc. Peoples pumped in 13 of her 15 points in the second half to go with a game-high eight rebounds and team-high three steals.
Notre Dame (3-3, 1-1), which joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, became easily the fastest program in the 44-year history of the league to earn 100 regular-season ACC wins, doing so in 116 games. Charter member North Carolina State was previously the quickest at 130 games.
The victory was rookie head coach Niele Ivey’s first in the league.
“I’m just so proud of this group,” Ivey said. “We had a really tough loss on Sunday (82-67 against visiting Georgia Tech), and our focus this week was to change our defensive mentality. To persevere and win this game was really huge. It was a pride thing for us, an individual pride defensively.”
The Hokies (6-1, 1-1) still did plenty of damage overall, but the Irish dominated over the final eight minutes at both ends, outpointing Tech 20-8 after trailing 70-64. There were 13 ties and 11 lead changes overall.
The last deadlock, 75-75, was snapped at 1:19 to go when Peoples beat her defender with a vicious crossover for a basket. She upped the spread to 79-75 at 31 seconds with a sweeping move to the hoop. In between those two buckets, Westbeld forced a turnover with Abby Prohaska chasing down the loose ball for the Irish.
After a pair of free throws by Dara Mabrey widened the gap to 81-75 with 31 seconds left, Prohaska alertly stole a side inbound at 20 ticks remaining to effectively seal the outcome.
“I think that was the most fun that I’ve had just playing out there in a while,” said Brunelle, verbalizing an emotion that her teammates wore on their faces, too, when the game was over. “When you can play and enjoy what you’re doing and have fun and play with your teammates, I just think it’s a work of magic,” Brunelle said, “and we succeeded tonight by having fun and playing hard.”
Brunelle, besides her offensive prowess, shared with Mikayla Vaughn — who was also celebrating a birthday — the bulk of ND’s defensive duty against Hokie sophomore sensation Elizabeth Kitley.
The 6-foot-5 Kitley, despite the Irish typically doubling down on her in the post, still scored a game-high 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field and 5-of-5 at the line. Freshman guard Georgia Amoore added 23 points and hit 5-of-12 on 3-pointers, while Aisha Sheppard scored 14 points. Ivey was nevertheless pleased, citing the inside-outside challenges that Tech presented and the relentlessness by her own team.
Notre Dame racked up 10 steals, including two each by Prohaska, Westbeld and Katlyn Gilbert, and forced 21 Hokie turnovers in all, including several pivotal ones in the fourth quarter. The offense was potent most of the time as well, hitting 53% from the field, including 8-of-15 on treys, and 20-of-27 at the line to help overcome 20 turnovers.
“We got the stops we needed, we got out and ran in transition, we executed down the stretch, we executed in the half-court,” Ivey said. “That was something we’ve been working on. What I’ve been talking about since I’ve been here (is) pushing pace and playing faster and I felt like we did both. We played fast when we needed to and we also settled in within our offense and executed in the half-court. That was something I had not seen the past five games.”
Tech built a 26-17 lead through one quarter, advanced the margin to 11 points early in the second period and was still up 33-23 before the Irish set sail on a 15-0 run. Notre Dame outscored the Hokies 26-12 in the second quarter for a 43-38 lead thanks in large part to a boost of energy off the bench from freshman guard Alasia Hayes. Hayes finished at eight points and three assists in just 13 minutes, nine of those minutes coming in that second period.
The Irish led by as many as seven points in the third quarter before Tech rallied for the 70-64 lead at eight minutes to go in the fourth for its largest of the second half.
Notre Dame responded with a 9-0 run for a 73-70 lead before the Hokies knotted the score twice in front of Peoples’ back-breaking drives.
Destinee Walker did not play for the Irish. She had started 35 of 36 games since joining the team prior to last season. She also did not play in the second half Sunday. Walker was ND’s top scorer last winter at 14.5 points and is averaging 11.4 this season.
Ivey said she is not injured.
“I kind of stuck with (a different) lineup,” Ivey said. “They did really well, and then just a decision I stuck with today, but she’s OK.” Notre Dame hits the road for the first time since its season-opening 86-85 loss at Ohio when it visits Clemson for a 3 p.m. game Sunday.