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Sports

Irish outrun Oklahoma State, advance to Elite Eight

| Saturday, March 29, 2014

Maybe it was the noise of the crowd at Purcell Pavilion. Maybe it was the pressure of the Sweet 16, or the pedigree of the Notre Dame program or simply the talent and speed of the opposing Irish. But whatever the reason, fifth-seeded Oklahoma State found itself buried under an 18-3 deficit less than five minutes into the game against No. 1-seed Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon, a margin the Irish guarded en route to an 89-72 victory.

The win advances the Irish (34-0, 16-0 ACC) into the Elite Eight, where they will face No. 2-seeded Baylor (32-4, 16-2 Big 12) at home Monday night.

Irish senior forward Natalie Achonwa drives towards the net.Kevin Song | The Observer

Irish senior forward Natalie Achonwa drives towards the net.

“I thought the crowd set the tone today,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “There’s no question, when we came out to see the sea of green and hear the excitement, feel the electricity, what a phenomenal atmosphere. I thought the roof might come off, it was so loud at times.”

The Irish gave the crowd plenty of reasons to cheer in the early going. Notre Dame grabbed the opening tip, and though senior guard Kayla McBride had her first layup attempt blocked by Cowgirls junior forward Liz Donohoe, Irish senior forward Natalie Achonwa gained control of the ball and put in the layup for the first basket of the game. Achonwa scored again 33 seconds later, and Irish sophomore guard Jewell Loyd got in on the action by hitting a contested layup and sinking the ensuing free throw at 18:47. The Irish hit four more shots before senior guard Tiffany Bias hit a 3-pointer to score the first points of the game for the Cowgirls (25-9, 11-7 Big 12).

“I don’t know if we were in awe or not; it seemed like we were a step behind in everything we did the first five or six minutes,” Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said. “We were sending two back in transition and they were just blowing by us.

“We haven’t been on this stage, and sometimes you’ve got to live it and go through it before you can really understand what it is.”

But the Cowgirls did recover from their initial shock. A jumper from junior center LaShawn Jones at 10:52 pulled Oklahoma State within 10, and though the Cowgirls lost some ground over the final minutes of the half, they finished the period with two players in double digits.

“Every team is going to fight back, no matter who you’re playing, and they did a great job of that today,” Achonwa said. Bias scored 11 points in the first half, nearly covering her season average of 13.8 per game. Oklahoma State’s leading scorer — both for the season and the afternoon — suffered a sprained ankle in the second-round game against Purdue on March 24, but Bias still finished the game with 17 points.

“Coach [Littell] has really helped me out these last few days to try and get me back to 100 percent to where I can play and feel comfortable,” Bias said. “The last two games haven’t been up to my standards, and coming out here and giving it all for my team, that’s all you can ask. I was lucky that my shots were actually falling today.”

Oklahoma State missed its final shot attempt in the closing seconds of the half, and junior guard Madison Cable grabbed the rebound to ensure the Irish went into the break with a 49-35 lead.

The Cowgirls struck first in the second half with a lay-up from Jones, before settling into a rhythm of trading baskets for much of the second half. Achonwa made a second-chance layup, and Bias responded with a steal and a layup of her own. McBride hit a jumper from the top of the key, and Donohoe followed by making a layup while being fouled by Irish senior forward Braker, then hitting a free throw to complete the three-point play. Any hint of early-game jitters were long gone.

“We knew they were going to score,” McGraw said. “We didn’t think we were going to shut them out. They have a really good player in Tiffany Bias — she’s so fast. I thought early on the crowd maybe got to them, because they missed some easy shots that they normally would make, so I think once Tiffany got off and made a couple of shots I think that relaxed the rest of the team and they really got into their sets a little bit better.”

When McBride hit a 3-pointer with just over six minutes remaining to put the Irish ahead 82-62, it looked as if the Irish might put away Oklahoma State for good. But back-to-back layups from Jones and Atkins brought the persistent Cowgirls back within a respectable margin. But tit-for-tat scoring did not close the gap, and the Irish bench played the final minutes to secure the 89-72 victory.

The Baylor players watched the end of the game from the stands after beating third-seeded Kentucky in the first game of the day at Purcell Pavilion. The Lady Bears were the last team to beat Notre Dame at home, beating the Irish 73-61 on Dec. 5, 2012.

“I think we’re really excited to get a chance to play them again, especially on our home court,” Achonwa said. “I know we’ll have the same fan support that we had today, and I think our team’s really excited to play another game at home and continue on in the tournament.”

The Irish return to their home floor Monday for an Elite Eight match-up against Baylor. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

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