SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame finally climbed off the teeter-totter it’s been riding all season, but the Irish first had to endure a roller coaster.
In a frenzied back-and-forth battle spiced by 24 lead changes and nine ties, Notre Dame avenged a 15-point women’s basketball home loss to Georgia Tech just three weeks ago by nipping the Yellow Jackets 69-67 on Sunday evening at Purcell Pavilion.
“I think there was a lot of raw emotion out there today because we did lose to them a couple weeks ago,” point guard Dara Mabrey said after leading a balanced ND attack with 16 points, 14 of those coming in the second half.
“There was definitely a familiarity with both teams,” said Mabrey, who hit 6-of-9 field goals with a pair of 3-pointers, “because we already saw each other once, so I think it came down to execution and toughness.”
The Irish (5-4, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) ended their season-long trend of alternating losses and wins, their eight in a row of that pattern landing them one short of the program record set 30 years ago.
“Really proud of this group to be able to put two really good games back to back, with a really great Georgia Tech team here,” said Irish coach Niele Ivey, whose club was coming off a 71-60 road win Thursday at Miami. “To protect our house and have a complete effort … we had so much composure. I felt like we really grew as a group and as a team.”
Destinee Walker, again delivering a spark off the bench, scored 15 points for Notre Dame to go with three assists and two steals in 29 minutes.
The unflinching Walker’s step-in move and 10-footer along the right baseline broke a 67-67 deadlock at 20 seconds to go.
The Irish then sealed the game with a feisty, scrambling defensive stand that ended when Tech’s Lorela Cubaj fired an off-balance air ball from about 15 feet just before time expired.
ND senior Mikayla Vaughn scored a season-high 11 points and matched a career high with four steals to go with 5-of-7 shooting from the field. Vaughn was stout at the start, then scored five points over the final 3:51.
“I felt like we came out with a lot of toughness, and I felt like that toughness was generated from Mikayla Vaughn,” Ivey said. “She was really ready. Her presence really made a difference and set a tone for us defensively.”
Kierra Fletcher led the Yellow Jackets (4-3, 2-2) with 19 points. Nerea Hermosa added 12 and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen 11.
Freshman Maddy Westbeld scored 11 for the Irish before fouling out with 2:54 remaining and her team up 64-63. She also hit the 22-foot 3-pointer just before the first-half horn that drew ND to within 28-24 after Tech owned the largest lead by either team at 28-21.
Then came the up-tempo second half that yielded 15 of those 24 lead changes and eight of those nine ties.
“There are some nerves when there’s 24 lead changes and the game is tied almost the whole game,” Mabrey acknowledged.
Some, but not too many in her case.
“I’ve definitely been in those kinds of games before,” said Mabrey, the junior transfer from Virginia Tech, “and as a point guard, my focus was just be the calming presence, collect everybody in the huddle and let them know we’re fine.”
The Irish ultimately were, partially by virtue of getting 10 steals from mostly their 2-3 zone, delivering unhesitating passes and overcoming the admitted frustration of the bigger Jackets notching a 19-9 advantage in second-chance points.
“I think it was because we trusted each other and had each other’s backs,” Mabrey said of the win, “and that’s huge for a new group.”
“Absolutely,” the rookie coach said. “It’s something we spoke on before leaving on Christmas break, coming off a really bad loss against Clemson (78-55). We had to just really rebuild and refocus on our principles, our habits and learning to trust each other on the floor, so trusting our help (on defense), trusting that we’re gonna see the open person on the offensive end. It all matters, and I feel like we’re starting to put it together.”
Anaya Peoples led the winners in both rebounds at seven and assists at six to go with seven points.
Notre Dame was without both sophomore regular Katlyn Gilbert and freshman backup Amirah Abdur-Rahim for the second straight game.
Gilbert injured her foot and Abdur-Rahim “tweaked her knee,” both injuries occurring in practice shortly before Christmas, according to Ivey. The coach said she was unsure how long either player would remain out.
The Irish play their next two on the road, visiting Boston College for an 8 p.m. game Thursday and heading to Syracuse for a 2 p.m. contest next Sunday.
GEORGIA TECH (4-3): Cubaj 2-7 2-4 6, Bates 1-6 0-0 3, Lahtinen 5-12 0-0 11, Love 1-3 1-1 3, McQueen 4-9 0-0 9, Wone Aranaz 2-2 0-0 4, Hermosa 4-9 4-4 12, Fletcher 6-11 4-5 19, Team 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 25-59 11-14 67
NOTRE DAME (5-4): Westbeld 5-12 0-0 11, Vaughn 5-7 1-2 11, Mabrey 6-9 2-2 16, Peoples 3-8 1-2 7, Prohaska 3-6 0-0 6, Brunelle 1-3 0-0 3, Walker 5-12 3-3 15, Hayes 0-1 0-0 0, Team 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 28-58 7-9 69
Georgia Tech 14 14 20 19 — 67
Notre Dame 13 11 23 22 — 69
3-Point Goals_Georgia Tech 6-23 (Cubaj 0-1, Bates 1-6, Lahtinen 1-6, Love 0-1, McQueen 1-5, Fletcher 3-4), Notre Dame 6-12 (Westbeld 1-2, Mabrey 2-4, Brunelle 1-3, Walker 2-2, Hayes 0-1). Assists_Georgia Tech 17 (Lahtinen 4), Notre Dame 17 (Peoples 6). Fouled Out_Notre Dame Westbeld. Rebounds_Georgia Tech 39 (Hermosa 5-8), Notre Dame 27 (Prohaska 3-4). Total Fouls_Georgia Tech 12, Notre Dame 14. Technical Fouls_None. A_53.