Notre Dame women's basketball: Irish dodge upset at Virginia

South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.-On its Saturday flight to Charlottesville, Va., for its first Atlantic Coast Conference road trip, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team got bounced around during some bone-jarring turbulence as heavy winds swept across the Southeast.

Sunday afternoon, the No. 2-ranked Irish had to endure some turbulence on the court before using a late run to turn back scrappy Virginia, 79-72, Sunday afternoon.

It was the first time this season an opponent came within 10 points of the Irish.

Notre Dame (15-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) continues a three-game road swing on Thursday at Pittsburgh (9-8, 1-2). The Irish have won 38 consecutive regular-season games and 27 consecutive regular-season road games.

Virginia is 8-8 overall and 1-2 in the ACC. The Cavaliers play at No. 3 Duke (16-1, 3-0) on Thursday.

Natalie Achonwa scored a career-high 26 points and had a season-high 16 rebounds to lead Notre Dame. Kayla McBride scored 23 points and Jewell Loyd 17.

Virginia’s Faith Randolph came off the bench to score a career-high 23 points. Sarah Imovbioh scored 18 points and had 12 rebounds.

“I thought Natalie Achonwa had a phenomenal game,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “Kayla McBride, offensively, was just tremendous. Those two, obviously, carried us the whole day, when the rest of the team was really lacking in offensive firepower.

“I thought Randolph played really well. We expected her to play well, we expected her to shoot well. We did a poor job of guarding her, but she was very, very difficult for us to guard. The matchup inside, Sarah was 18 and 12. She was phenomenal, too.

“It was just a great game. Welcome to the ACC for us. We hoped for a little warmer, nicer welcome from Virginia. They were tough.”

Notre Dame struggled in the first half but shook off a 1-of-12 stretch and bolted from a 25-24 deficit to a 43-36 halftime lead. The Irish hit six of their last eight shots in the first half, and McBride was 4-of-4 for eight points in Notre Dame’s 18-11 run.

Hitting 3-of-4 to open the second half, the Irish forged a 51-38 lead at the 17:47 mark of the second half. After a Virginia timeout, the Cavaliers reeled off a 6-0 run to close to 51-44.

Virginia closed to 69-66 with 6:33 left, but a block by Achonwa was followed by two Cavalier misses from point-blank range. McBride rebounded and passed for a fastbreak layup by Taya Reimer for a 71-66 Irish lead with 5:49 left.

It turned into a two-point Irish lead, 71-69, when Virginia’s Sarah Imovbioh hit one of two free throws with 3:49 remaining.

A tough driving layup in traffic by McBride following a hustle offensive rebound by Reimer helped Notre Dame build a four-point lead at 73-69 with 2:50 left. Following a Virginia miss, Achonwa hit a pair of free throws, putting the Irish up 75-69 with 2:15 left. From there, they maintained the upper hand.

“It was (back-breaking),” Virginia coach Joanne Boyle said of McBride’s snaking shot in traffic. “But … she’s made those before. It’s not that you expect it, but you’re not surprised. Those are the shots that are going to kill us.

“Down at the other end, we just didn’t have as much patience the last five minutes that we had against Virginia Tech (when the Cavaliers rallied from 17 points down to beat the Hokies on Thursday).”

McBride said she was just trying to give the Irish a lift with the highlight-reel shot.

“I was just trying to get to the free-throw line, trying to get in and make something happen,” McBride said. “It was late in the shot clock. I just need a ball screen and was trying to get to the rim and give us a little more of a cushion.

“I was just kind of in-the-moment. I was there to get the rebound if it fell out. I was just trying to be aggressive and attack the rim.”

Notre Dame, which entered the game No. 1 in the nation in assists (22.9) and field-goal shooting (51.7 percent), suffered some rough numbers on Sunday. The Irish had only 13 assists and committed 14 turnovers. Notre Dame was 28-of-66 shooting (42.4 percent).

“I thought our shot selection wasn’t good, but we missed a lot of layups, too,” McGraw said. “I thought we drove the ball and maybe needed another dribble, or needed to gather a little bit more. I’m talking about the guards, mostly. They drove it, but we just couldn’t finish.

“We really took some bad shots along the way. We settled for some jumpers. We wanted to go inside. We felt like that was our advantage against a four-guard lineup. We just weren’t able to do it. It was really disappointing that we weren’t able to do that.”

Boyle said the Cavaliers executed almost all of the key points of their game plan, which was to put the brakes on the Irish transition game, cut back on Notre Dame’s rebounding margin, and stop one of the “Big Three” (McBride, Achonwa and Loyd). Virginia outscored Notre Dame in fastbreak points (8-6), reduced Notre Dame’s rebounding margin from an average of 13.9 to 8, but couldn’t stop one of the “Big Three,” who combined for 66 points.

“We knew the team’s strength.” Boyle said. “We knew what they like to do. We knew what McBride liked to do, we knew what Loyd liked to do. We tried to take that away from them and limit them to one shot.

“I thought we did a decent job on Loyd in the first half, and then she was like, ‘I’m going to get mine.’ What great players do is they find a way to score, and she just came off and started attacking the rim, like McBride did. We tried. They’re All-Americans for a reason, and they make big plays.”

Boyle gave the Irish credit for playing tough at critical points of the game, at the end of the first half (a 19-11 Irish run) and the end of the second half (an 8-3 Irish run).

“A lot of credit to Notre Dame,” Boyle said. “They’re obviously the No. 2 team in the country for a reason, but I’m just so proud of my team and how they came out poised and confident and worked their butts off to put themselves in a position to win that game.”

NOTRE DAME (15-0): Natalie Achonwa 9-14 8-10 26, Ariel Braker 0-2 5-6 5, Lindsay Allen 0-3 1-2 1, Kayla McBride 10-22 2-2 23, Jewell Loyd 6-17 4-4 17, Taya Reimer 2-3 0-0 4, Madison Cable 0-3 0-0 0, Michaela Mabrey 1-2 0-0 3, Markisha Wright 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-66 20-24 79.

VIRGINIA (8-8): Sarah Imovbioh 8-12 2-6 18, Kelsey Wolfe 2-6 3-3 7, Tiffany Suarez 0-5 0-0 0, Lexie Gerson 4-12 0-0 8, Ataira Franklin 4-9 0-0 8, Breyana Mason 0-5 0-0 0, Faith Randolph 10-17 1-2 23, Raeshaun Gaffney 2-5 2-2 6, Sydney Umeri 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 31-74 8-13 72.

Halftime — Notre Dame 43-36. 3-Point Goals — Notre Dame 3-12 (Mabrey 1-1, McBride 1-4, Loyd 1-4, Allen 0-1, Cable 0-2), Virginia 2-8 (Randolph 2-4, Gerson 0-2, Franklin 0-2). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Notre Dame 47 (Achonwa 16), Virginia 39 (Imovbioh 12). Assists — Notre Dame 12 (McBride 5), Virginia 14 (Franklin 5). Total Fouls — Notre Dame 15, Virginia 17. A — 4,451.

Virginia guard Faith Randolph (20) shoots a 3-point basket over Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride (21) and forward Natalie Achonwa during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/ANDREW SHURTLEFF)