Notre Dame follows familiar script in losing to Virginia Tech

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The fight in the Fighting Irish down the stretch felt like insufficient consolation, thanks to a first quarter that forced Notre Dame to fight uphill against double-digit deficits nearly all evening.

With 6-foot-5 freshman center Elizabeth Kitley scoring 19 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking a career-high eight shots, Virginia Tech held on for a 68-62 women’s basketball victory over the Irish on Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion.

“I think the fourth quarter was too little, too late,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of her team charging back from a 22-point, last-period hole to get to within 67-62 at 13.1 seconds to go.

“And the first quarter was really disappointing,” McGraw said, “because I think we got demoralized with our inability to score. We’d miss a layup, and we’d put our head down, and they’d go down and score.”

The Hokies (20-6, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), working toward a likely first NCAA Tournament bid in 14 years, won their fourth straight game and clinched their first winning league season over their 16 years in the ACC.

The Irish (10-17, 5-10) dropped their third straight game and matched the most losses they’ve ever sustained in McGraw’s 33 years at ND, the other instance coming in 1991-92 when the Hall of Fame coach closed her only losing season until likely this one at 14-17.

Freshman Sam Brunelle scored 20 points for Notre Dame on a night she went a career-best 6-of-10 from 3-point range. Destinee Walker added 12 of her 19 points during ND’s 28-point closing quarter.

“Obviously, we brought a lot more fight I think into that fourth quarter,” Brunelle said, “which we’re kind of known to do throughout the season. The sad thing is we can’t do that for four quarters.

“Part of that is on me. I’m not here just to shoot. I’m here to rebound, and I did not do my job tonight.”

Brunelle grabbed just one rebound over 36 minutes.

ND closed at what appeared a competitive 43-37 deficit on the glass, but was already down 16-6 in that department after the pivotal opening quarter.

“Turnovers and rebounding,” McGraw said after her club also coughed up 12 of its 18 turnovers within the first 17 minutes. “We just cannot get a rebound. That’s just so disappointing. We’ve been working on boxing out, and it’s just not translating for us.”

The Irish, trailing by a high of 57-35 at 7:45 to go in the game, closed to within 59-49 at 4:05 remaining with a 10-0 spurt that included seven straight points by Walker. The Hokies responded by upping their advantage to 65-50 at the 3:06 mark, but ND scrapped to the wire, getting as close as 67-62.

Grad transfer point guard Taja Cole — whom McGraw had raved about a day earlier as Tech’s difference maker — was a “tour-de-four-ce” during the first quarter, getting four steals, four assists and four points within the opening 8:38 to key the Hokies in building their 20-10 lead through one period.

She completed the night with 11 assists, eight points and five steals.

Sophomore guard Dara Mabrey — the younger sister of current Irish assistant Michaela Mabrey and ex-ND star Marina Mabrey — scored 11 points and made three steals for Tech while playing all 40 minutes. Dara entered the game 66-of-172 on 3s for 38.4 percent, but was limited to 2-for-8 against the Irish.

Sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert and junior center Mikki Vaughn labored mightily from the field throughout for the Irish, going 2-of-16 and 1-of-6, respectively, though Gilbert also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, had four assists and made three steals.

“I’m going to give that a big yes,” McGraw said of whether Gilbert was still dealing with effects from the flu that bit her Wednesday.

Marta Sniezek, during another unrelenting floor game in which she was mercilessly beat up, collected eight assists against five turnovers to go with three steals.

Brunelle’s shooting, though, was the clear Irish highlight, her six treys being the most any ND player has drained this winter. “Obviously, the season’s been like a roller coaster for me shooting-wise,” said Brunelle, who entered the night at 27 percent from the arc overall, but 34 percent across her last dozen games.

“I know I can shoot. I know that’s part of the reason I’m here, to be a shooter.”

“She always shoots well in practice,” McGraw said. “I thought tonight was a great game for her on the offensive end. We didn’t even really honestly look for her that much. I think she found herself some spots. I think we can look for her even more.”

The Irish, 4-9 at home on the season, fell to the Hokies at Purcell for the first time in seven all-time meetings here, and lost to Tech for the first time anywhere since February 2003.

Notre Dame plays the middle contest of a three-game homestand Sunday, when Syracuse (15-11, 9-6) visits for a noon tip. It’ll be a rematch of the Orange’s 74-63 overtime home win on Jan. 5. It’ll also be ND’s annual Pink Zone game, featuring a halftime, on-court recognition for all cancer survivors in attendance.

Notre Dame’s Marta Sniezek (13) gets called for a foul as Virginia Tech’s Lydia Rivers (21) looks to pass during ND’s 68-62 loss Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion.