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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame clinches ACC regular-season title

| Monday, February 24, 2014

In a conference stacked with talent from top to bottom, Kayla McBride earned her coach’s distinction as the best player in the ACC with a dominant performance Sunday.

The senior guard scored a career-high 31 points to lead No. 2 Notre Dame to an 81-70 win over No. 7 Duke and the outright ACC regular-season title.

Irish senior guard Kayla McBride drives to the hoop against Duke on  Sunday. McBride had a career-high 31 points in the 81-70 Irish win.Isabella Bianco

Irish senior guard Kayla McBride drives to the hoop against Duke on Sunday. McBride had a career-high 31 points in the 81-70 Irish win.

“I thought Kayla McBride was just outstanding again today,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s had a phenomenal year, but [had] 31 points [today]. She was just amazing — really unstoppable.”

The entire Irish team looked unstoppable to open the game, firing from all spots on the floor to begin with a 20-2 run off five layups, three jumpers and three free throws in front of a sold-out Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame (27-0, 14-0 ACC) was equally effective on the other side of the court, holding Duke (24-4, 11-3 ACC) scoreless in the game’s first four minutes and limiting it to just two points through the next four minutes.

“We had a lot of energy,” McBride said. “You could feel it in the locker room before the game. … For a while there, we were so tense, in that stretch that we had, and we just came out, having fun, playing with each other and for each other.”

However, the Blue Devils began to crawl back and made three field goals on three straight trips to pull within 11 and set a competitive tone that would last for the rest of the matchup.

Duke hit shots more consistently from that point on to keep its deficit to between 11 and 20 points as the half progressed. It rattled off six points in the final seven seconds before the break, including senior guard/forward Richa Jackson’s near-half-court shot as time expired in the half to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 46-32.

“It was incredibly frustrating because we were making so many mental mistakes, in particular the last play of the half — just mental breakdowns,” McGraw said. “They got the momentum, and we probably thought about the end of the half a little too much and carried it over into the second half.”

Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd sets up for a jump shot while guarded by Duke sophomore guard Alexis Jones on Sunday.Isabella Bianco

Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd sets up for a jump shot while guarded by Duke sophomore guard Alexis Jones on Sunday.

The Blue Devils outscored the Irish, 27-20, through the first 12:30 of the second frame behind Duke junior center/forward Elizabeth Williams, who finished with a team-high 20 points. They whittled Notre Dame’s lead down to seven points at the 7:37 mark after freshman forward/center Kendall McCravey-Cooper hit a jumper to bring the score to 66-59.

After that, however, the Irish took over as they did in the first half, hitting shots from the paint, the free-throw line and behind the arc. McBride nailed a 3-point shot with 2:31 left in the game that brought lead back up to 18.

“The 3 she hit … was the game-winner,” McGraw said.

Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd, who contributed 21 points, said McBride’s efficiency Sunday — the senior was 13-of-25 from the floor — came as no surprise to the rest of the team.

“We see that all week in practice — she’s money,” Loyd said. “Every time she shoots it, that thing is going in.”

McBride and Irish senior forward Natalie Achonwa pulled down seven rebounds apiece. Achonwa scored 15 points, 13 in the first half.

The Irish also held senior guard Tricia Liston, whose 18.4 points per game led Duke, to nine points on 3-for-8 shooting.

“[We were] trying to hold her to single digits, and we were able to accomplish that,” McGraw said.

Notre Dame’s fifth win this season over a top-10 opponent helped it clinch a regular-season conference title for the third consecutive year. The Irish won the Big East titles in 2012 and 2013, and now in their first year in the ACC have earned a double-bye in the conference tournament, which begins March 5 in Greensboro, N.C.

“It’s good for us to have a trophy now, to know that we accomplished something so far,” McGraw said. “To come in as our first year in the league and to win it is really gratifying.”

The Irish next take on North Carolina on Thursday in their final home game of the season at Purcell Pavilion, with tip-off slated for 7 p.m.

Contact Mary Green at mgreen8@nd.edu

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Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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