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Carolina blues

Joe Meixell | Wednesday, March 21, 2007

PITTSBURGH – Leading 41-33 in the second half, Notre Dame seemed in control of its second-round game over North Carolina – but the Tar Heels had other ideas. North Carolina refused to go down quietly, going on a 15-0 run to give it a 48-41 lead with 6:30 to play.

By the time Irish guard Tulyah Gaines stopped the bleeding with a driving layup, the game was out of reach for Notre Dame, which eventually fell 60-51 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell credited the explosive run to a defensive change when she placed guard Alex Miller in charge of defending the Irish point guards.

“I just kept telling my players to keep encouraging one another. We just seemed flat,” Hatchell said. “We were not playing with enough energy.”

Tar Heels center LaToya Pringle felt the comeback had a lot to do with her coach.

“The time out that [Coach Hatchell] called really made a difference. She said we wasn’t playing hard,” Pringle said. “We buckled down and did what we had to do on the offensive end.”

On that run, North Carolina forced the Irish post players into foul trouble, as center Melissa D’Amico committed her fourth personal foul with center Erica Williamson already sitting on three.

Notre Dame’s centers weren’t the only Irish players in foul trouble down the stretch. Although both teams were whistled for eight fouls apiece in the first half, the Irish were called for 11 infractions to the Tar Heels’ five in the second. Three Irish players finished with four fouls (D’Amico, Williamson and Gaines) while guard Melissa Lechlitner finished with three.

The Tar Heels used the foul discrepancy to their advantage in the second half, capitalizing on the bonus free throws to extend the final lead.

Notre Dame seemed poised for another run after Allen used a high screen on the left wing to sink a 3-pointer with 1:17 to play that cut the lead to three. But a Gaines foul on Tar Heels point guard Ivory Latta stopped the Irish momentum and extended the lead back to two possessions at 54-49.

“I always feel confident in my team,” Allen said. “I knew even though we were down, I knew we’d come back and make a run. Unfortunately we didn’t come out on top.”

All night long Notre Dame’s defense focused on shutting down Latta.

“Our only problem [with the box-and-one] was the fouls,” McGraw said. “Three-point game with just over a minute, and we gave [Latta] two free throws, and she’s a great free throw shooter.”

The Irish were then forced to foul as the game slowly ended, sending North Carolina back to the line six more times – where they failed to miss – in the final 30 seconds.

Allen was the lone bright spot for Notre Dame against the Tar Heels. The junior finished with 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting with four rebounds. Allen was the only Irish player in double figures despite being guarded by the Tar Heel’s best defender – forward Camille Parker – all night.

“[Allen is] an incredible player,” Hatchell said. “She’s just a really, really tough player – very intelligent, got great skills, makes great reads.”

Although it fell short in the end, Notre Dame started out the second half with a 10-2 run in the opening 6:45 minutes to gain a 38-31 lead. Post play proved important for the Irish as D’Amico and forward Crystal Erwin led the charge. Williamson added to the effort by grabbing offensive rebounds and forcing the Tar Heels to foul her inside.

“I thought we executed our game plan almost to perfection,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I’m really proud of the effort and the focus, the intensity.”

The Irish ran effectively with the Tar Heels for the first half and went into the locker rooms down only one point. The Irish fell behind by four early in the game – the largest lead for either team – but Breona Gray rejuvenated the Irish offense with a three from the corner to bring the score to 6-5.

The teams traded leads eight times in the first half, mostly behind their inside play.

Notre Dame was mostly able to keep the game close against North Carolina with its defense.

The Irish not only did a good job preventing North Carolina from taking good shots – the Heels only shot 40 percent from the floor in the first half – they also grabbed key defensive rebounds to prevent the Tar Heels from going on sustained runs to extend their lead.

Even though Notre Dame’s season is now over, McGraw is content with her team’s performance this year.

“We had a great year. We overachieved, and we’re disappointed that we weren’t able to finish this game,” she said. “When we look back on this year, we will be really pleased and proud of what this team has accomplished.”