Noie: High-stakes college hoops in early January? Yes, please

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It was a few minutes before 5 o’clock late Thursday afternoon with tip of a rare regular-season showdown still two hours out when Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner wandered onto the Purcell Pavilion court.

She couldn’t wait anymore. To get up a few shots. To break a sweat. To play in yet another game pitting the No. 1 team (Notre Dame again) against the No. 2 team (Louisville this time) in the latest Associated Press poll. When Turner arrived, the arena seats were empty. That would change. Those seats would fill with a whole lot of lime green T-shirts.

Happy lime at night’s end as top-ranked Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0 ACC) won on its home floor for the first time ever as the top team in a 1-2 showdown with an 82-68 victory. It was only the second time the Irish have savored success as a No. 1 against a No. 2 at any venue in eight tries.

So eight was enough.

"A great win in terms of conference, but it is still early," said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. "We've got a lot of games to play."

And win. Like Thursday. If such a notion of pressure exists the second week of January, it was clearly hovering over the home team. Louisville (14-1, 2-1) hadn’t been here — beating a No. 1 team — since 2013. And really, were the Cardinals expected to return to the Commonwealth with a win? Not really.

Notre Dame was last here, on this same court, nearly six weeks earlier against long-time nemesis Connecticut. The Irish couldn’t do much that Sunday afternoon and didn’t get it done, which led to an 18-point setback at home.

That one was offset some by Notre Dame snagging an invitation to the College Football Playoff national semifinal earlier in the afternoon. But football’s over. It’s hoops season. Time to live and breathe it from here on out, or at least until spring football commences.

Losing this one would have been tough to stomach. The defending national champions couldn’t’ drop another big game at home, could they? Would they? Nope.

That question was answered when Arike Ogunbowale — yep, her again — delivered a deep 3 to beat the third-quarter horn. That pushed the Irish into the evening’s first double-digit lead (57-47). Even that wasn’t safe. Louisville would slide back within four. The Irish answered. Then six. The Irish answered. They made the plays and got the stops they couldn’t get last month.

It still wasn’t enough. The Cardinals kept competing.

Notre Dame led by only four with under four remaining. Then two with two minutes and change left. That revved-up crowd got awfully nervous. Time for someone in a white uniform to deliver, to tell the Cardinals, nope, not tonight.

An Ogunbowale baseline pull-up jumper? Yes, please.

Louisville answered.

A Tuner lay-in? Thank you.

Louisville didn’t answer.

Ogunbowale did. How about a crusher 3?

Good night.

"I was so proud of what we did," McGraw said. "We had that 10-point; we watched it fritter away and didn't panic."

Notre Dame sailed to the win but not before Louisville coach Jeff Walz called a pair of timeouts in the closing seconds. Must have done it to design that special 10-point play. Only one problem — the Irish had possession. Just take the loss and get back on the charter home. Thanks for playing.

"It was a really good basketball game," Walz said. "If you look at the score, it's a 14-point game. But if you were there, you know it's not. It's a two-point game with a minute, 45 left. We fought.

"It was a one versus two game and I think it looked like a one versus two game." 

This one unfolded as expected. Close, with a slim margin for error by both teams.

The first 10 minutes featured 10 ties and six lead changes. Both teams led and trailed by as many as four points. Back and forth it went. The way it should go with these teams, from this conference, on this night.

Notre Dame tallied four assists on its nine first-quarter buckets. That was nearly half the assist total it had in the December disappointment against Connecticut, when making the extra pass was a rumor. Too much “me” and not enough “we.”

Not Thursday, at least early.

Marina Mabrey got it going with the night’s first feed to Turner for a layup. Ogunbowale then got going, seeing the floor and seeing the open teammate at the rim.

She found Jackie Young and then Turner for consecutive assists and buckets, part of an 8-0 Irish run. They made it look easy and effortless. For some time, it was. Then it wasn’t. The Irish stopped sharing it, stopped making shots and started taking quick ones. Tough ones. Challenged ones.

Louisville just kept doing what it does and finding Asia Durr. That led to an odd air about the building for the second quarter. The Cardinals led for much of the period, sometimes by as many as seven. Combine the crowd reaction, it felt more like 17. That’s the standard the Irish have set at home and how high the bar is. If Notre Dame isn’t running and scoring and defending and rebounding and pushing the pace and building a big lead, it seems like something’s wrong. Off. Different.

Unfortunately, there’s no sequel to this one. The teams meet only once in the regular season. Could we sub out one certain lopsided game along the way for a rematch at Yum! Center? That sure would be far more interesting and likely entertaining for Notre Dame than another 100-44 victory like earlier in the year over Pittsburgh. Yawn.

This rematch likely may not surface until March 10 in the ACC Championship in Greensboro, N.C., when the stakes will be just a little higher. That’s when the Irish likely get a chance to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs, what the Cardinals took from them last season.

Notre Dame once was a lock for the ACC title. Not last year. Not anymore.

There was an edge about this one. That’s kind of refreshing on a cold January evening. It set the table for more madness in March.

Notre Dame’s Jackie Young (5) drives against Louisville’s Asia Durr (25) during the Notre Dame-Louisville NCAA women's basketball game Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (32) gets a pass around Louisville’s Sam Fuehring (3) during the Notre Dame-Louisville NCAA women's basketball game Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.