Notre Dame falls to Clemson

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND

Mikki Vaughn was back at last, but now Marta Sniezek’s out.

When will it finally all come together for Notre Dame this season?

Actually, it may not be this season.

“I think it’s going to take another year,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said of solving her team’s issues following a stunningly disastrous 71-55 women’s college basketball loss Sunday to Clemson.

“We gotta have like a go-to player, and we definitely don’t have one,” McGraw said.

Notre Dame, tipping off its seventh season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, lost an ACC home game for the first time ever, dropping to 48-1 at Purcell Pavilion.

It happened more decisively, too, than the final margin suggests — and it happened against an opponent that came to town just 4-8 with blowout losses against the three ranked clubs it’s played, four additional defeats by at least 13 points each and wins over nobody drawing a whiff of national poll points.

“I don’t even know where to begin,” McGraw said after exhaling hard to start her postgame meeting with media.

She found plenty of places, though, if not necessarily to begin, certainly to address.

“We just couldn’t make a shot, and we hung our heads and didn’t do anything else,” McGraw said. “Instead of saying, ‘I can rebound,’ or ‘I can defend,’ or ‘I can get assists,’ we just hung our heads, and that’s incredibly disappointing, and unacceptable.”

The Irish (5-8, 0-1) labored in many manners, including against a Tiger zone that looked something like their own.

“We just stood around and shot 3s, and we didn’t make any of them,” McGraw said. “Every timeout, we talked about, ‘We’re not shooting 3s, we’re trying to run the offense.’ We forgot the offense. We were in the wrong place the entire first half. We were paralyzed. ... The things we worked on in practice that were open, we didn’t even look there. We didn’t even try to throw it in.

“It’s really getting discouraging that we’re just not making that next step.”

Vaughn, the junior center who had missed the previous 11 games with a knee injury suffered in the opener, returned to score eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and make four steals in 23 minutes.

“I didn’t feel nearly as out of shape as I thought I was going to feel, so I guess that’s something,” said Vaughn, who added that she was otherwise disappointed in her play and that she’s “tired of losing.”

While Vaughn was back, Sniezek, ND’s starting point guard all season, missed a regular-season game for the first time, that after likewise sitting out an exhibition last week with plantar fasciitis.

“That’s up to her,” McGraw said of when Sniezek might return. “I have no idea.”

McGraw refused to place much blame for Sunday’s loss on the absence of her team’s season leader in assists, minutes played and drawn charges.

“I don’t think that had anything to do with it honestly,” McGraw said, “(except) it would’ve been good to have an extra sub, because a couple people didn’t really come to play. We had to play them. It would’ve been nice to be able to take them out.”

On the other side, Clemson got glistening performances from both junior sharpshooter Kendall Spray and 6-foot senior forward Kobi Thornton.

By the end of third quarter — at which time the Tigers led 55-31 — Spray already had all of her season-high 24 points on 8-of-14 3-point shooting, often striking from several feet beyond the arc. Notre Dame at that point was 0-of-11 on 3s.

Thornton, meanwhile, finished two short of her career high with 23 points, repeatedly carving the Irish up inside and from the elbow areas on an 11-of-19 shooting night.

“Spray really shot the ball well, which we knew going in, but again our lack of awareness really, really hurt us,” McGraw said of a player now 23-of-45 on treys over her last four games. “Then Thornton had a really good second half. “(She) was a tough matchup for us.”

Junior guard Destiny Thomas dished a game-high 12 assists for the winners against four turnovers.

Clemson (5-8, 1-1) celebrated by ambushing coach Amanda Butler in the locker room with a water shower.

“I’ll take that dousing any day,” Butler said, fully aware that the game marked ND’s first-ever ACC home loss.

“This is a really special place to play and special environment,” Butler said. “I admire everything that’s been built here, so to be able to win on this court, for a team that is as new as ours, it’s a really big step forward for us in maturity and just in every facet of the game. ... I thought our overall effort and toughness were just outstanding.”

The Tigers built a 35-17 lead by halftime, holding the Irish to their lowest total in any half this season by four points.

Clemson led by a high of 53-25 at 3:34 to go in the third quarter, before ND began to make a push.

The closest Notre Dame got, though, was 67-55, that at 1:42 left in the game.

Sophomore Katlyn Gilbert led the Irish with 16 points and nine assists. She was 5-of-19 from the field and coughed up seven turnovers.

Freshman Anaya Peoples added 14 points, seven rebounds and four steals.

Grad transfer Destinee Walker scored 10 points, but was 3-of-15 from the field.

Freshman Sam Brunelle was held to a season-low for a full game of five points, and all of those came in the fourth quarter.

Overall, Notre Dame saw a 58-game home winning streak in conference play snapped, its last such loss coming while in the Big East, 65-63 to West Virginia on Feb. 12, 2012.

“They’re going nowhere but up,” Butler insisted of ND’s outlook. “I’m really glad we played them early.”

CLEMSON (71): Amari Robinson 2-12 2-2 6, Kobi Thornton 11-19 1-3 23, Hannah Hank 2-5 0-0 4, Destiny Thomas 1-4 1-2 4, Kendall Spray 8-16 0-0 24, Nique Cherry 2-6 2-3 6, Tylar Bennett 2-4 0-0 4, Chybna Cotton 0-0 0-0 0, Kaylee Sticker 0-2 0-0 0, Shania Meertens 01 0-0 0, Mikayla Hayes 0-0 0-0 0, Isis Lopes 0-0 0-0, Danae McNeal 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 28-69 6-10 71

NOTRE DAME (55): Sam Brunelle 2-6 1-2 5, Mikayla Vaughn 4-5 0-0 8, Katlyn Gilbert 5-19 5-6 16, Anaya Peoples 5-12 4-6 14, Destinee Walker 3-15 3-4 10, Kaitline Cole 0-3 0-0 0, Danielle Cosgrove 1-3 0-0 2, Margaret Murdock 0-0 0-0 0. Catherine Murdock 0-0 0-0 0, Kathleen Keyes 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 26-64 13-18 55

Clemson 12 35 55 71

ND 11 17 31 55

3-point: Clemson 9-18. Notre Dame 2-17

Notre Dame’s Mikayla Vaughn (30) drives to the basket during Sunday’s game against Clemson at Purcell Pavilion. Tribune Photo/EVAN COBB
Notre Dame’s Destinee Walker (24) fights for the ball with Clemson’s Kobi Thornton (44) and Tylar Bennett (55) during Sunday’s game at Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame’s Anaya Peoples (21) drives to the basket during Sunday’s game against Clemson in South Bend.
Notre Dame's Mikayla Vaughn (30) steals the ball during Sunday's game against Clemson at Purcell Pavilion.