Hot defense helps Notre Dame women handle Florida State on icy South Bend night

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s shooting was as icy in the first half as the windshields in the Purcell Pavilion parking lot, then in the second half as hot for a while as July in Tallahassee, but what was boiling virtually throughout for the Irish was their defense.

Riding that part of its game against one of the nation’s most potent offenses, No. 7-ranked ND rallied from a 10-point second-quarter deficit to pound No. 24 Florida State 70-47 in women’s basketball Thursday night.

Sonia Citron scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds as the Irish improved to 17-2 overall, 8-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, remaining tied atop the league standings with No. 16 Duke.

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Grad center Lauren Ebo, making her first ND start following Sunday’s season-ending injury to Dara Mabrey, and freshman guard KK Bransford, who becomes at a minimum the clear-cut first player off the bench due to Mabrey’s injury, each responded with glowing games.

Bransford scored 15 points, while Ebo notched a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Makayla Timpson led the Seminoles (18-5, 7-3) with 13 points and all players with 11 rebounds and four blocks.

Ta’Niya Latson, a frontrunner for national freshman of the year, was limited to a season-low nine points, 14.6 off her ACC-leading average.

Jan 26, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Sonia Citron (11) shoots a three point basket over Florida State Seminoles guard Taylor O'Brien (11) in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

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► Notre Dame held FSU nearly 39 points below its season norm of 85.8, which was fourth in the country. The Seminoles’ previous low this season was 71.

“Collectively, our team defense was amazing,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We started off with Soni trying to put a lot of pressure on Latson, and then we went zone, so that was collective.

“Our wings were out, our center was there for the rotation and our guards did a great job of keeping (Latson) in front and containing her,” Ivey said. “KK and Soni started out man-to-man against her and really pressured her and made every shot a tough shot.”

Latson wasn’t alone in having a tough night; so, too, did FSU as a whole.

The Seminoles made just 11-of-34 on 2s for 32% (their season average was 45%) and 5-of-25 on 3s for 25% (their season average was 37%).

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► Ebo, in that aforementioned first start, and Bransford, playing a season-high 27 minutes, each took a shining to their new challenges.

“I thought she was great,” Ivey said of Ebo, who did make 59 starts between her two years each at Penn State and Texas. “She’s solid. Great presence when we get her the ball. I think she’s one of the best in the country at finishing. She’s ready (to assume a starting role). I feel like I had six starters the entire season, so that was easy for her.”

Ivey also already had another regularly utilized and productive backup in Bransford, but now Bransford may be entering even quicker. On Thursday, she did so just 1:44 into the game.

Jan 26, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard KK Bransford (14) goes up for a shot as Florida State Seminoles guard Sara Bejedi (4) defends in the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m so impressed by KK,” Ivey said. “She plays with such maturity for a freshman. She’s a big spark off the bench for us. I knew that her role was going to expand, losing Dara, and I just feel like she stepped right into that role. Sometimes she plays the four, sometimes she plays a guard. She’s very versatile and it’s really helping us.”

Ivey chose for at least one game Ebo’s veteran background over perhaps the more convenient route of continuing to deploy a three-guard starting lineup like the Irish had with Mabrey.

Going forward, “it might depend on matchups,” Ivey said, “but I really like our experience, like our size with (Ebo). I’m going to continue looking at that.”

► Notre Dame overcame its lengthiest dry spell of the season.

The Irish went a staggering nine minutes, 23 seconds, between points from the 7:13 mark of the opening quarter, at which time they led 7-2, to the 7:50 mark of the second period, at which time they trailed 16-7.

ND missed all 15 of its shots from the field, a pair from the line and committed five of its 11 turnovers during that stretch.

The Seminoles’ lead went on to reach a high of 22-12 at the 4:08 mark of the second period, but that’s also exactly when Olivia Miles returned to the Irish lineup after sitting out four minutes with two fouls.

ND ruled the rest of the way, scoring the final 10 points of the half for a 23-22 lead, then outscoring FSU 48-24 after the break.

“I thought that really ignited us,” Ivey said of the return by Miles, who finished with seven points, six assists of the mostly awe-inspiring variety and five rebounds, along with just one more foul.

During one stretch of a third quarter the Irish dominated 27-10, they made 8-of-9 field goals.

ND also became downright nasty on the boards, especially at the offensive end, where it piled up 16 rebounds in the second half and 21 for the night on its way to advantages of 23-8 in second-chance points and 55-37 rebounding.

Who's hot

Jan 26, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Olivia Miles (5) and guard KK Bransford (14) celebrate with guard Sonia Citron (11) after a basket in the first half against the Florida State Seminoles at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Citron paced the Irish in scoring for the second straight game.

Over those two contests, she’s 13-of-22 from the field, 8-of-11 on 3-pointers and 5-of-6 at the line for 39 points.

Who's not

Cass Prosper endured an 0-for-9 night from the field — including badly airballing a pair of 3s from the same left corner — yet the unflinching early enrollee kept scrapping.

Prosper grabbed four offensive rebounds and made a game-high three steals in 17 minutes to go with four points at the line.

Up next

The Irish visit No. 20 North Carolina State (15-5 5-4) for a 3 p.m. tip Sunday.

The Wolfpack, then as the nation’s No. 3-ranked team, eliminated No. 22 ND 66-63 in last year’s Sweet 16 matchup, after the host Irish took the regular-season meeting 69-66.

No. 7 Notre Dame 70, No. 24 Florida St. 47

FLORIDA ST. (18-5): Howard 2-4 0-0 5, Timpson 5-11 3-5 13, Bejedi 1-10 3-4 6, Latson 3-11 3-3 9, Massengill 1-4 0-0 3, Myers 1-3 1-2 3, Gordon 1-5 0-0 2, O'Brien 2-6 0-0 6, Turnage 0-2 0-0 0, Valenzuela 0-3 0-0 0, Totals 16-59 10-14 47

NOTRE DAME (17-2): Ebo 6-12 0-0 12, Watson 2-6 0-0 4, Westbeld 2-10 2-2 7, Citron 6-11 5-6 19, Miles 2-7 2-2 7, Bransford 6-11 3-5 15, Brown 0-2 2-2 2, Prosper 0-9 4-6 4, Cernugel 0-0 0-0 0, Marshall 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 24-68 18-23 70

Florida St.12111014— 47
Notre Dame7152721— 70

3-Point Goals—Florida St. 5-25 (Howard 1-3, Bejedi 1-8, Latson 0-1, Massengill 1-3, Gordon 0-2, O'Brien 2-4, Turnage 0-2, Valenzuela 0-2), Notre Dame 4-16 (Westbeld 1-4, Citron 2-4, Miles 1-3, Brown 0-1, Prosper 0-4). Assists—Florida St. 10 (Gordon 3, Latson 3), Notre Dame 16 (Miles 6). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Florida St. 37 (Timpson 11), Notre Dame 55 (Ebo 10). Total Fouls—Florida St. 18, Notre Dame 12. Technical Fouls—None. A—4,956.