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ND Women’s Basketball: Victory sets up game between top teams

Molly Sammon | Thursday, November 17, 2011

The top two teams in the country, No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 1 Baylor, will meet in the Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament championships on Sunday in Waco, Texas.

Notre Dame’s 98-43 win over Hartford at the Purcell Pavilion on Thursday gave the Irish three reasons to celebrate: their play on the court, a new banner and a surprise presentation honoring Irish coach Muffet McGraw’s recent induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“That was a complete surprise to me,” McGraw said. “It was just such an honor to see that banner. It definitely brought tears to my eyes.”

Against the Hawks, junior guard Skylar Diggins and senior guard Natalie Novosel took over on offense for the Irish in the first half. Diggins put up 17 points, and Novosel scored 16 before halftime. Senior Brittany Mallory recorded 12 points and made all four shots from behind the 3-point line in the first half.

Four of Notre Dame’s players have scored in double-digits in the last three games. Against Hartford, Novosel, Diggins, Mallory and sophomore guard Kayla McBride each contributed 10 or more points.

“I was really pleased with our start tonight. Brittany [Mallory] got us off to a great start with those threes,” McGraw said. “Natalie [Novosel] didn’t miss a shot in the first half. Her and Brittany were both perfect from the field, and then Skylar shot extremely well. Going into halftime, I felt really good about the way we were shooting the ball.”

The Irish broke the record for most steals in a WNIT with 69 in just three of the tournament’s potential four games. Maryland held the previous record with 58 steals in four games.

“They want to defend,” McGraw said. “I think they get annoyed sometimes when we take the press off. There is never a drop off when the bench comes in either. We want the defense to create some easy baskets for us, and we were able to do a little bit of that tonight.”

Thursday’s blowout was a visible reminder for the Irish of the importance of a strong defense.

“Coach preaches getting out and making them uncomfortable early,” Diggins said. “That defensive intensity is what leads to offense. It gives us a lot of momentum to start the game.”

Including the current run for the WNIT title, the Irish have reached the semifinals in each appearance and the final game twice, winning the tournament against Ohio State in 2004.

Baylor secured a spot in the title game after beating No. 22 UCLA 83-50 on Thursday. Notre Dame fell to the Bears 76-65 on Dec. 1, 2010.

A matchup of the top-ranked teams in the country, the high-intensity game provides Notre Dame a chance to learn more about itself than usual for an early-season matchup.

“I think it’s going to be interesting to see the depth that we have playing against the No. 1 team in the country on the road,” McGraw said. “Only good things can happen. We’re going to find out where we are, especially where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are.”

The Irish take the Bears’ home court 2 p.m on Sunday. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.