Defense fuels Notre Dame women

NOTEBOOK

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

It was a chance for the Florida State women’s basketball team to strike.

After erasing a 14-point Notre Dame lead Thursday night, Florida State closed to 32-29 by halftime, and the second half couldn’t have started any better for the Seminoles.

Just 19 seconds into the second half Notre Dame post Natalie Achonwa was called for a technical foul. She was whistled after protesting a non-call when she thought she was roughed up while losing possession of the ball.

In less than a minute, the Seminoles were driving for what could have been the go-ahead basket.

With Notre Dame leading, 34-33, the Seminoles saw a layup attempt by Morgan Jones agonizingly roll off the rim and into the hands of Achonwa.

On the next possession, Notre Dame’s Ariel Braker had two clutch offensive rebounds, tossing the ball into a teammate’s hands as she fell out-of-bounds on one carom, and then finished off the possession with a putback as she was fouled.

Braker hit the free throw, giving Notre Dame a 37-33 lead.

Just 6:41 later the Irish had a commanding 56-36 lead, and, ultimately, an 81-60 victory. The second-half explosion helped the No. 2-ranked Irish improve to 22-0 overall and 9-0 in the ACC. The Irish play Sunday at home against Syracuse (17-6, 6-4). Notre Dame will try to match the program’s best start — 23-0 — which was set in the 2000-2001 season.

“The big runs always happen when we get a couple of stops on defense,” said Achonwa, who scored 24 points in 26 minutes. “The first half, they were getting three shots to one of our shots. They were getting a lot of offensive rebounds. When we get a couple of stops, we get to go on runs, because we’re not trading baskets anymore.”

Achonwa wasn’t happy with the technical, but she was happy with the way the Irish seized momentum in the technical’s aftermath.

“A technical is never a good thing, but the team really responded,” Achonwa said. “I think I just lost my poise for a minute. I just tried to gather it afterwards and focus on my team and doing what we needed to do to get back in the game. From there, we took the momentum and ran with it.”

Cheering section

Jewell Loyd, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, highlighted the Irish run with two spectacular alley oops.

“I was just trying to have fun and get something going,” Loyd said. “We like to run in transition. We have really good passers. They see me and they trust that I can finish.”

When Loyd posterized the Seminoles with her alley oops, the Irish bench erupted.

“I turned into a fan,” said Achonwa, who checked out of the game just before the airborne plays. “We were all so excited.

“Jewell can soar. When we have passers like Michaela Mabrey and Lindsay Allen who can throw them in the air, and the fact that Jewell can catch them and finish with contact, is just great for women’s basketball. You don’t see too much of that.”

Ace trumps

Achonwa, nicknamed “Ace” by her coaches and teammates, has been an ace at shooting the ball, connecting at a torrid pace recently. The 6-foot-3 senior leader has hit 22-of-29 shots in her last four games (76 percent), including 10-of-12 against Florida State. Achonwa entered the Florida State game shooting 58 percent.

“I’d hope they were high,” Achonwa said of her shooting numbers. “I’m shooting layups. Otherwise, (assistant coach Carol Owens) would not be happy with me.

“It’s just a great job by our guards. When you have Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride shooting the way they shoot and score, it takes the pres-sure off of me, and I get some easy ones. Two defenders are drawn to them, and I get the dish down, or the weak-side pin. They just do a great job of finding me.”

Against Florida State, Achonwa scored 11 of Notre Dame’s first 14 points. She triggered a 15-2 run that helped the Irish build a 27-13 run.

“Natalie makes it look easy,” McGraw said. “She just really uses her body so well. She’s so mobile and versatile. She hit a couple of jumpers, she got to the free-throw line. She really did a lot of different things, and scored in a lot of different ways.’’

Top shooters

Notre Dame leads the nation in field goal percentage (.518) and 3-point shooting (.440), and it bettered those numbers on Thursday. The Irish connected on 31-of-58 (53 percent), and hit 6-of-13 from 3-point range (46 percent). Florida State could manage only 35 percent shooting (25-of-71), and was 2-of-17 from 3-point range (12 percent).

“We can score,” McGraw said. “I don’t want us to just be a team that can outscore people. I want us to be a team that really, really likes to de-fend. I think we can get better.’’

Tough stretch

Notre Dame won its 45th consecutive regular-season game and its 32nd regular-season game. The 81-60 win over Florida State capped a stretch in which the Irish played six of its last eight games on the road. Before Florida State, the previous three road games were at No. 11 Ten-nessee, No. 8 Maryland, and No. 3 Duke.

“We survived,” McGraw said. “This team has so much mental toughness. They just battle every night. It’s so fun to coach them. They’re just always so ready.

“I think the seniors do such a good job of getting everybody ready. ... We are anxious to get back home.’’

Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa (11) drives past Florida State forward Ivey Slaughter (23), bottom left, for a layup in the first half of their game Feb. 6 in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)