Irish women find home sweet in dominating win over Florida State

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Strictly from a time-away standpoint, this had to rate as the sweetest that home felt for Notre Dame in over 40 years, and the Irish played like it.

Befitting the pageantry of Senior Night and the traditional Pink Game rolled into the mix as well, and taking a giant stride in its efforts to crack the NCAA Tournament field, Notre Dame dominated Florida State most of the evening Thursday on its way to a 72-64 women’s college basketball victory at Purcell Pavilion.

Due to recent scheduling tweaks, it was ND’s first home game in 39 days, the longest gap within a single season since 1979-80.

The Irish improved to 10-8 overall and 8-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference heading into their regular-season finale Sunday afternoon against visiting No. 6 Louisville.

The Seminoles, one of many teams perceived to be accompanying Notre Dame on the NCAA Tourney bubble, dropped to 9-7 and 8-7.

Lately surging FSU was coming off a 68-59 win over then-No. 3 Louisville.

“This was a really big win for us and I’m proud of us for starting (well) early, and everybody had contributions tonight,” guard Destinee Walker said after finishing as one of five Irish in double figures at 11 points to go with four assists and three steals. “Everybody played hard, so I was proud of everyone. Everyone knew going into this game it was going to be a big one for us, and I thought that was how we came out.”

Walker was joined by Mikki Vaughn, who scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and Nicole Benz as the Senior Night honorees.

Walker and Benz have already indicated this is their final season, while Vaughn — despite up to two more years of eligibility remaining — said “I’m not quite sure, but I think it might be.”

Each of the trio acknowledged the emotion of the evening.

“My parents weren’t able to make it and obviously weren’t able to walk (me) down,” Vaughn said, alluding to pregame ceremonies and coronavirus circumstances limiting travel, “so having our teammates hooked on our arms, each side, was really sweet. I’ve been feeling it all day. Everyone on the team’s been making it really special.”

“The people that made it special for me were definitely my teammates,” Walker echoed. “It was a little different, because we didn’t really have the packed stadium we usually have with all the fans (the crowd was reported at 114), but I thought all the family and everybody that was in the stands made it a great night for me.”

Benz — who first joined the program as a student manager in 2017, then became a walk-on, then was awarded a scholarship before this season — not only logged her first appearance of the winter Thursday, but got her first career start, as coach Niele Ivey continued predecessor Muffet McGraw’s practice of always starting the seniors on Senior Night.

“It was something I never thought would happen in my wildest dream,” Benz said. “Just being a part of this team in general and all the special moments it’s brought me, it’s hard to put into words.”

Endearingly, even though Anaya Peoples darted to the scorer’s table less than five seconds into the game to be subbed in for Benz, the beloved former manager more than held her own, with a dead ball not occurring until 2 minutes, 17 seconds in.

“She killed it,” a smiling Vaughn said of Benz, who nearly made a steal on ND’s first defensive possession and exited with the Seminoles still having never scored a point at 4-0.

With freshman Maddy Westbeld setting the pace at 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, the Irish led from start to finish and flirted with a blowout much of the way.

They were up 67-49 with just 3:17 remaining before Florida State scored 11 straight points to get to within 67-60 at 39 seconds to go.

A pair of free throws by Walker at 37.2 ticks remaining ended the spurt and extended her streak of makes at the line to 27 over 11 games before it was snapped a few seconds later.

Still, the Seminoles got no closer than 70-64 after that, at 19.7 seconds left.

“I definitely think it ranks top three,” Ivey said of how well the Irish played over the first 35 minutes. “(We) set the tone, even with a different lineup. We were very confident, very poised in our offense. I felt like we had incredible balance and got a lot of production off the bench.”

Freshman Olivia Miles, in just her fourth college game as a January enrollee, and Peoples led that bench production with 11 points apiece. They also combined for 14 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Miles made 5-of-7 shots from the field, but just 1-of-5 at the line.

Notre Dame coughed up eight turnovers over the final five minutes, revisiting a late-game issue that proved costly in squandering huge leads on a couple occasions this season, but this time, the lead was too big.

“We gotta clean up some of our turnovers,” Ivey said, “but I thought it was a really good, complete game.”

While Sam Brunelle returned and scored eight points after not traveling for the win at Pittsburgh on Monday, usual starter Abby Prohaska remained absent for a second straight game.

“Abby’s just taking personal time,” Ivey said. “I expect her to be back this weekend.”

Alli Campbell was not in uniform, but was present after suffering a practice injury earlier in the week, while fellow freshman backup Alasia Hayes, according to a Notre Dame official, has opted out of the remainder of the season due to concerns related to COVID.

Bianca Jackson led FSU with 18 points. Valencia Myers added 13 and Sammie Puisis 10.


At South Bend

FLORIDA ST. (9-7): Myers 5-8 3-5 13, Jackson 7-14 0-0 18, Jones 4-8 0-0 8, Puisis 4-11 0-0 10, Weber 2-10 0-0 5, Baldwin 0-1 0-0 0, England 1-7 0-0 3, Lassiter 2-8 0-0 5, Wilkinson 1-2 0-0 2, Team 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 26-69 3-5 64

NOTRE DAME (10-8): Westbeld 4-8 7-8 17, Vaughn 6-9 0-0 12, Benz 0-0 0-0 0, Mabrey 0-5 0-0 0, Walker 3-10 5-6 11, Brunelle 3-6 1-2 8, Gilbert 1-1 0-0 2, Miles 5-7 1-5 11, Peoples 4-7 3-4 11, Abdur-Rahim 0-0 0-0 0, Team 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 26-53 17-25 72

Florida St. 7 12 20 25 — 64

Notre Dame 17 15 20 20 — 72

3-Point Goals_Florida St. 9-26 (Jackson 4-6, Puisis 2-9, Weber 1-5, England 1-2, Lassiter 1-4), Notre Dame 3-14 (Westbeld 2-3, Mabrey 0-5, Walker 0-1, Brunelle 1-4, Peoples 0-1). Assists_Florida St. 14 (Weber 6), Notre Dame 15 (Westbeld 5). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Florida St. 31 (Lassiter 4-4), Notre Dame 44 (Miles 5-8). Total Fouls_Florida St. 23, Notre Dame 12. Technical Fouls_Florida St. Jackson 1. A_114.

Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker (24) drives past Florida State’s Sammie Puisis (2) Thursday at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Maddy Westbeld (34) shoots past Florida State’s Sammie Puisis (2) Thursday at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.