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ND Women’s Basketball: Refuse to lose

Matthew Robison | Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Despite trailing by as many as 15 points at one point in the first half, No. 2 Notre Dame came charging back to grab a 79-68 win over Syracuse in Purcell Pavilion on Tuesday. The Irish refused to lose on the night when they honored the two winningest players in program history – senior guards Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner. 

In 26 seasons under coach Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame (26-1, 14-0 Big East) has only lost three Senior Night games.

“We were not going to do that,” Diggins said.

Rattled by some early-game jitters and the emotion of the pregame ceremonies, Notre Dame started freezing cold from the field, missing its first seven shots. Junior guard Kayla McBride finally broke the ice with a made free throw almost three minutes into the game. But the Irish quickly found themselves in 22-7 hole with 12:45 remaining in the first half.

That was when Diggins’ refuse-to-lose mentality seemed to kick in. 

She quickly hit a 3-pointer to quell the Orange flames and eventually powered Notre Dame to trail Syracuse (22-5, 10-4) by only three points heading into halftime, scoring 21 points in the first period. She finished with 24 points.

“Skylar was amazing running the show and attacking,” McGraw said. “[She] didn’t let their press slow us. We kept the pace that we wanted.”

McBride finished with a career-high 25 points and became the 31st player in program history to reach the 1,000-point milestone.

“Kayla McBride just made big shot after big shot,” McGraw said. “She was huge. Every time we needed a basket, it seemed like she was the one that made it.”

Only four minutes into the game, junior forward Natalie Achonwa picked up her second foul and was forced to the bench. Her counterpart, Syracuse senior center Kayla Alexander, made her first six field goals and dominated the glass. She finished the first half with 16 points and nine rebounds.

“I thought about [putting Achonwa back in the game] especially when we got down 15,” McGraw said. “I kept looking, thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something to change the way things are going.’ But if we could just get it under 10, we would be OK. We wouldn’t need her.”

Indeed, the Irish did not need her. When she returned in the second half, she slowed Alexander down, keeping her off the offensive glass and away from the basket. Achonwa finished with 11 points – all of which came in the second half – and 12 rebounds.

Her 15 double-doubles this season are one shy of a school record. Diggins is one steal behind the school’s all-time leader in that category, Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey.

McGraw said she was visibly bothered by her team’s apparent inability to score, especially early. She admitted that the emotion of the game got to her team.

“I thought we were all affected by [the emotion of Senior Night],” McGraw said. “We couldn’t make a shot. A little bit of emotion, a little bit trying too hard, a little bit of trying not to let it bother us. I think it was tough in the beginning.”

But she recognizes that challenges like Tuesday’s game provide valuable learning opportunities for the Irish to prepare for postseason play.

“I think [it was] a great test with the Big East tournament looming and with so many great teams coming back,” McGraw said. “Of course with the NCAA tournament and just finishing out the season, I thought [it was] a great test for us. We haven’t really been tested since South Florida [on Jan. 8].”

Turner started the game after missing the last four games with an elbow injury. In the second half, she drilled an open 3-pointer off a feed from Diggins to push the lead to nine and ignite the crowd.

“That was huge to see Kaila Turner,” McGraw said. “Just having her on the floor was great. And then for Skylar to find her on the three-point line in a situation when the basket was huge. … It was a great play.”

Though Tuesday night was Senior Night for Notre Dame, the Irish still have one remaining home game. They renew their rivalry with No. 3 Connecticut on Monday in Purcell Pavilion. The Irish also likely will host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in March.

Contact Matthew Robison at mrobison@nd.edu