Notre Dame women lock up ACC crown

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - As No. 7 Duke tried desperately to preserve its four-year reign in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame sharpshooter Kayla McBride nailed a 3 from the right wing with a Blue Devil defender flying at her.

McBride then turned to the roaring Purcell Pavilion crowd and finally allowed a smile to flash across her face.

Dagger.

McBride’s 3 gave her a career-high 31 points, and put the Irish on a path to an 81-70 victory on Sunday to wrap up the ACC women’s basketball regular-season crown in their first season in the league.

Notre Dame (27-0 overall), has a 14-0 record in ACC play, and second-place Duke (24-4) is three games back at 11-3 with two games left.

“It’s good for us to have a trophy now, to know that we have accomplished something so far,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We kept looking at the next game as the most important thing for us, so to come in our first year in the league and win it is really gratifying.’’

Notre Dame’s championship is its third in a row. The Irish won the Big East regular-season crown the past two seasons. The Irish title run that dethroned Duke included an 88-67 win over the Blue Devils on Feb. 2, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Irish are 8-1 overall against Duke.

By clinching the ACC regular-season title, Notre Dame will be the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. The Irish earned a double-bye, and start play on Friday, March 7, in the quarterfinals.

Notre Dame continues a rugged stretch to close the regular season by hosting No. 11 North Carolina on Thursday. The Tar Heels (21-7, 9-5) were upset by Virginia Tech 50-47 on Sunday. Thursday’s tip-off between the Irish and Tar Heels is scheduled for 7 p.m. Duke returns to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday to host Wake Forest.

Jewell Loyd scored 21 points and Natalie Achonwa 15 on Sunday. Elizabeth Williams led Duke with 20 points.

Notre Dame grabbed a 77-59 lead with McBride’s 3, the thunderbolt of an 11-0 run. The 31-point effort by the 5-foot-11 All-American candidate topped her previous game-high, 28 points against Iowa in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

Notre Dame saw a 20-point lead, 46-26, melt to a 14-point lead 46-32, in the final seven seconds of the first half.

Duke cut the Irish lead to seven points, 62-55, with 11:47 left on a fastbreak layup by point guard Alexis Jones, but Jones suffered an injury on the play and was helped to the Blue Devils’ locker room. She suffered an apparent knee sprain, and did not return.

Shortly afterward, McBride scored six points in a row and helped the Irish gain a 70-59 lead with 6:26 left.

McBride, who scored 16 of her points in the first half, got the Irish off to a blistering start. The Irish opened with a 13-0 run that grew to 20-2. McBride scored nine of the Irish points in the run.

“We had a lot of energy,” McBride said. “You could feel it in the locker room before the game. We came out and were hitting shots, getting stops on defense, getting points in transition. I think we were just having fun.

“For a while, we were so tense in that stretch we had. But I think we came out and were just playing with each other and for each other.”

Duke used a 7-0 run to close the gap and trailed 38-24 when the teams exchanged lightning bolts. Notre Dame used a pair of 3s by Michaela Mabrey and a tough shot by McBride for the 20-point lead, but Duke countered with its six-point flurry in the final seven seconds to bring it back down to a 14-point Irish edge.

Duke’s Tricia Liston, who averages 18.4 points a game and leads the nation in 3-point shooting (50.0 percent), was limited to nine points. Liston was 3-of-8, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range. Loyd played relentless defense to limit the 6-1 Duke star’s opportunities.

“I think it’s just having that mentality that you don’t want to get scored on, that’s not fun at all,” Loyd said of the pride and focus she brought to her defensive effort. “Knowing that our teammates are going to help you when you get hit on screens or are a little late (is helpful). Our team defense was really good, and I took it upon myself to make sure (Liston) had a tough day.”

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said that Jones’ absence hit the Blue Devils hard.

“It was a beaufiful move for her,” McCallie said of the play on which Jones was injured. “She went in for that left-handed layup that put us within seven and with a great deal of momentum.

“Notre Dame is a great team, and we don’t know what would’ve happened from there, but I guess I wish I could’ve seen it. (Jones is) an All-American candidate and a super sophomore and obviously we were a different team when she was gone.”

DUKE (24-4): Haley Peters 4-6 0-0 9, Elizabeth Williams 9-17 2-3 20, Alexis Jones 4-10 6-8 15, Richa Jackson 5-11 0-0 11, Tricia Liston 3-8 1-2 9, Ka’lia Johnson 1-1 0-0 2, K. McCravey-Cooper 1-2 0-0 2, Oderah Chidom 1-2 0-0 2, Amber Henson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-58 9-13 70.

NOTRE DAME (27-0): Natalie Achonwa 6-8 3-4 15, Ariel Braker 2-3 0-0 4, Lindsay Allen 1-1 1-2 4, Kayla McBride 13-25 2-2 31, Jewell Loyd 7-19 6-6 21, Whitney Holloway 0-0 0-0 0, Kristina Nelson 0-0 0-0 0, Taya Reimer 0-0 0-0 0, Madison Cable 0-0 0-0 0, Michaela Mabrey 2-8 0-0 6, Hannah Huffman 0-0 0-0 0, Markisha Wright 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-64 12-14 81.

Halftime — Notre Dame 46-32. 3-Point Goals — Duke 5-12 (Liston 2-4, Jackson 1-1, Peters 1-2, Jones 1-4, Henson 0-1), Notre Dame 7-21 (McBride 3-9, Mabrey 2-6, Allen 1-1, Loyd 1-5). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Duke 32 (Jackson, Williams 6), Notre Dame 32 (Achonwa, McBride 7). Assists — Duke 13 (Jones 6), Notre Dame 23 (Achonwa 6). Total Fouls — Duke 17, Notre Dame 12. A — 9,149.

Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen, left, steals the ball from Duke's Alexis Jones during Sunday's game in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Notre Dame players huddle together at mid-court following the 81-70 victory over Duke on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw hugs her husband Matt McGraw following the 81-70 victory over Duke on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN