SOUTH BEND — Mikki Vaughn repeatedly got a leg up against Syracuse at crunch time — even if sometimes one leg is about all the resilient junior center has to give.
Vaughn’s two free throws at 1:02 to go accounted for the final score as frontrunning Notre Dame held on for a tense, 72-70 women’s basketball victory over the Orange on Sunday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion.
The Irish (11-17, 6-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) snapped a three-game losing skid, avenged a 74-63 overtime loss last month at Syracuse (15-12, 9-7) and halted a five-game winning streak by the Orange, who had recently beaten No. 5 Louisville by eight.
Besides her decisive free throws, Vaughn — who finished with a career-high 21 points and three blocks — also smoothly scored against an expiring shot clock on a post feed from Marta Sniezek for a 66-63 ND lead on the immediate heels of Syracuse drawing as close as it had been all day to that point at 64-63.
She then harnessed her inner Sniezek to coax a hard-knocks charging foul at 1:58 to go with her team up 70-68.
“The free throws for sure,” Vaughn said of which of her contributions were most important to her on a day she had an assortment from which to choose. “I missed a handful (still going 7-of-10 to accompany 7-of-9 from the field), so obviously we could’ve won a little more easily if I’d made those, but just making the two at the end, those were critical.”
“Mikayla Vaughn was the player of the game for me,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said before going on to review some of her fellow Philadelphia area native’s pivotal plays. “I thought she was fantastic … just played a great game.”
The 6-3 Vaughn missed nearly all of her 2017-18 freshman season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, then missed 11 games early this season with a sprained right knee.
“Oh yeah,” McGraw said of whether Vaughn’s battle back from injuries has been tougher than most people realize. “She’s playing on one leg. She gets tired quicker, she’s getting beat up inside and she’s giving it absolutely everything she has inside on every single possession. She just continues to battle every play.”
Destinee Walker added 16 points, six assists and three steals, Sam Brunelle 15 points and nine rebounds, and Katlyn Gilbert 12 points, six assists and three steals on a day the Irish needed all of that and more to escape.
Unveiling perhaps its most complete quarter of the season, and decidedly its most lopsided first quarter in its favor, Notre Dame roared to a 27-11 advantage, leading by a high of 23-5 along the way.
“Well, we finally got off to a great start,” McGraw said of what’s been ND’s most problematic quarter on the season. “I thought that was obviously key. Now we know that if we can get up 17 or 20, we have a chance to win it by two.”
Not winning it would’ve marked the largest blown lead by the Irish in a loss this season.
ND sprang to a 5-0 edge in the first 54 seconds and the Orange never drew even, never mind never going ahead, until Kiara Lewis’ two free throws at 1:20 to go for a 70-70 count.
“We wavered quite a bit in the fourth quarter,” McGraw said. “I think we got really nervous when the game got close and nobody really wanted to shoot, and we need to be able to fix that, see what we can do, but I’m happy we held on for the win.”
Syracuse got to within single digits for the first time since 14-5 when it closed to 54-45 midway through the third quarter.
Initially, it appeared as if the Irish were unfazed. They used a 6-0 run to restore their advantage to 60-45.
But the Orange kept coming. Their 19-4 spree bridging the third and fourth periods got them to within 64-63 at 5:21 remaining in the game.
ND inched back out to a 70-65 lead at 3:14 left thanks to a pair of slick buckets by Gilbert. She created a 12-footer for herself on the first one by dribbling to the opposite side, then made a sharp inside cut, took a precise feed from Brunelle and pump-faked for the second.
That came at 3:14 left. The Irish scored just two more points, those on Vaughn’s free throws.
“I always come in thinking that we’re going to do really well,” Vaughn said of whether she felt especially good about herself and the team entering the game given the day’s scorching start. “I know we’re going to give it all we have. I guess once the game starts, mindset changes, but you always have to go into every game thinking the same thing.”
On its third opportunity of this winter to do so, ND accomplished something no Irish team had done in 12 years — avenge a regular-season loss within the same regular season.
Of course, Notre Dame until this season, by virtue of winning the vast majority of its games, hadn’t even been in position to do that in nine years.
During last month’s loss to the Orange, the Irish led by 10 points with less than eight minutes to go before Lewis forced overtime at six seconds showing with a 3-pointer.
This time, Lewis misfired on a game-winning 3-point try at two ticks left, and Gabrielle Copper missed a putback try as time expired.
Lewis led all scorers with 24 points. She hit 9-of-17 from the field overall and 3-of-7 outside the arc, but committed seven turnovers. Cooper added 17 points and 10 rebounds. Both players went all 40 minutes.
Notre Dame earned its first win of the season over a team currently on pace to finish over .500 in the ACC.
The Irish play their Senior Night home finale Thursday against North Carolina (16-11, 7-9), with a 7 p.m. tip, before concluding their regular season next Sunday at No. 17-ranked Florida State.
SYRACUSE (15-12): Strautmane 3-15 2-2 10, Finklea-Guity 2-2 0-0 4, Cooper 7-16 0-2 17, Engstler 1-8 0-0 2, Lewis 9-17 3-4 24, Djaldi-Tabdi 3-5 2-3 8, Hyman 1-2 1-2 3, Washington 1-3 0-0 2, Team 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 27-68 8-13 70
NOTRE DAME (11-17): Brunelle 6-19 0-0 15, Vaughn 7-9 7-10 21, Gilbert 5-13 2-2 12, Sniezek 1-3 2-2 4, Walker 6-10 3-4 16, Cosgrove 1-2 0-0 2, Cole 1-2 0-0 2, Team 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 27-58 14-18 72
Syracuse 11 22 21 16 — 70
Notre Dame 27 17 18 10 — 72
3-Point Goals_Syracuse 8-35 (Strautmane 2-10, Cooper 3-10, Engstler 0-6, Lewis 3-7, Hyman 0-1, Washington 0-1), Notre Dame 4-15 (Brunelle 3-11, Walker 1-3, Cosgrove 0-1). Assists_Syracuse 12 (Lewis 4), Notre Dame 20 (Gilbert 6). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Syracuse 37 (Finklea-Guity 5-9), Notre Dame 40 ( 5-6). Total Fouls_Syracuse 15, Notre Dame 14. Technical Fouls_None. A_8,086.