Noie: Easy does it for Notre Dame women in NCAA opener

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It was tempting.

Tempting to slide out and catch the last few periods of Saturday’s spring practice with the Notre Dame football team. Tempting to throw on a coat and grab a few innings of the Atlantic Coast Conference home openers for the Irish baseball and softball teams. Tempting to check in on the Irish men’s lacrosse team across the way.

Tempting to grab a nap before the Big Ten hockey championship game later in the night over at Compton Family Ice Arena.

Tempting to do something other than watch the last three quarters of the first-round NCAA tournament game between No. 1 seed Notre Dame and No. 16 Bethune-Cookman. Ten minutes of this were enough to know that Notre Dame is good. Scary good. Like, 92-50 first-round victory good.

It wasn’t that close. Almost from the moment Jessica Shepard dropped in a layup five seconds after the opening tip, the Irish did what the Irish do. The tournament trail promises to get tougher as Notre Dame gets deeper into this potential repeat title run. Saturday it just wasn’t. Notre Dame was too much of Notre Dame.

“For us, it was just playing our game,” Shepard said.

One that saw the Irish win by at least 40 for a seventh time this season. It looked so easy, seemed so effortless. There was a point deep in the second half where junior guard Jackie Young hadn’t even broken so much as a sweat. She still had 11 points, four rebounds and four assists.

“Did it look easy?” wondered power forward Brianna Turner. “We don’t look at the score as a measure of how we’re playing. There’s always stuff for us to work on.”

Notre Dame moves on to face No. 9 Michigan State (21-11) in Monday’s second round at Purcell Pavilion. Tipoff is 7 p.m. EDT, on ESPN.

Only once before in the history of the women’s tournament had a 16 beat a 1. Harvard stunned Stanford in 1998, but it wasn’t going to happen Saturday. Not on Notre Dame’s home floor. Not with the way the Irish have worked and played since their last loss in early February.

Not on this starting lineup’s watch. You know, the one that’s pushing toward a combined 10,000 career points? Yeah, that one. The one that had two starters — Shepard (strep throat) and Marina Mabrey (hyper-extended knee) — ailing earlier in the week. Wasn’t enough to slow this Irish express.

Two of the three other No. 1 seeds — Louisville and Mississippi State — won their tourney openers by an average of 46 points. After Notre Dame’s win, No. 1 seeds were 102-1 all-time against No. 16s. Baylor likely would make it 103-1 later Saturday.

For the home team, it was all about winning and moving on. For the other, it wasn’t about winning or necessarily losing to a squad that could well win it all again. It was about being there — here — for the first time in school history. To get a taste, however small, of what it means to play in the NCAA tournament so that maybe they can get back next year or the next year and experience it all. Back in South Bend or somewhere else.

“You guys have been first class for us,” coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis said. “We’ll never forget this.”

The experience, no. The game? What game?

Notre Dame led by double digits less than seven minutes in. The Irish led by 20 less than a minute into the second quarter. Led by 35 before half. Led by 40 in the third quarter. Notre Dame was just too big and too strong and too good. Forget halftime. This one was over long before then. Eighteen straight points by Notre Dame to start the second quarter took any intrigue out of this one.

With no Bethune-Cookman starter standing over 6-foot-1, the game plan for Notre Dame was simple. Easy. Throw the ball inside, like every time down the floor to the forward tandem of Shepard and Turner. Let them score. Or rebound. Or block shots. Just turn them loose and let them dominate.

That they did.

Shepard finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds; Turner added 19 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Blair-Lewis admitted afterward that her team had never seen a starting lineup with so much size across the board. Actually, they have — from the Bethune-Cookman men’s team.

How much was Notre Dame’s size a factor?

“All of it,” she said. “It was difficult for us to run our plays.”

After the opening few minutes, this one had the look of a non-league game stuffed somewhere early in the regular season for Notre Dame. It sure felt that way, right on down to seeing that section of the Notre Dame fan base that arrives nearly two hours before tip to stake out their spots in the Purcell Pavilion parking lot, then wave those neon green glo-sticks during the introduction of the starting lineup.

Afterward, Irish coach Muffet McGraw used one word to describe her team’s defensive effort, one that saw the Wildcats held to 26.7 percent from the floor, 26.5 percent from 3, get outrebounded by 21 and commit 16 turnovers.

“Disappointed,” McGraw said. “We’ve got a long way to go to be a good defensive team.”

The Irish have a few more chances to get there.

One win down, five more to get.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner (11) blocks a shot by Bethune-Cookman’s Chasimmie Brown (12) during Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game in South Bend.