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Late defensive stand keys Irish win

Laura Myers | Saturday, March 19, 2011

After Utah guard Iwalani Rodrigues scored her 21st and final point of the afternoon with a free throw Saturday, Notre Dame led Utah by just six points.

In the 10 minutes that followed, with senior guard Brittany Mallory no more than a few feet away from Rodrigues at all times, No. 2-seed Notre Dame pulled away to defeat No. 15 Utah 67-54 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“[Mallory] just shut her down,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I don’t think she got a shot after that. … We had to make the decision to take away the 3-point shot.”

In the first 30 minutes, Rodrigues made four of her six 3-point attempts and the Utes led three times while sticking close to the much-favored Irish.

McGraw had predicted her team would come out “rusty,” but she said Saturday she didn’t expect them to stay that way.

“We didn’t seem to get into a flow,” she said. “Defensively I thought we were bad.”

Notre Dame came out of a 36-33 halftime with a 7-0 run, but Rodrigues responded with eight points in just over a minute to put the Utes within two, 43-41.

McGraw called a timeout after Rodrigues’ display.

“Defensively we were kind of lackadaisical, so [the time out] brought us together, got us all in check of what we needed to do: defensive lockdown,” senior forward Becca Bruszewski said. “It was just taking us away from the game for a minute to calm us down, kind of reset.”

Bruszewski scored a layup at the end of the first half to give Notre Dame a little momentum going into the locker rooms, but it was sophomore guard Skylar Diggins who provided the spark in the second half. She scored 12 of her 20 points in the period, including five of Notre Dame’s first seven and a layup that put Notre Dame up by 11 points with less than five minutes to go.

“We wanted to go to Sky and see if we could get something going,” McGraw said. “… She hit a 3, she got to the foul line, she did a lot of really good things in that stretch.”

Junior guard Natalie Novosel also scored 20 points. Bruszewski had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists, and senior forward Devereaux Peters had 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks.

Utes senior Michelle Harrison grabbed nine of Utah’s 15 offensive rebounds, from which the Utes scored 14 second-chance points. Overall, Utah out-rebounded the Irish 41-34, with Harrison leading all players with 16 boards.

Despite being a low seed, Utah hosted the game at its Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake. The home crowd of 2,366 made its presence felt, making the arena a hostile environment for Notre Dame.

“I thought whoever was in charge of marketing for the tournament did an outstanding job,” McGraw said.

Notre Dame advances in the tournament to face No. 7 seed Temple, which defeated No. 10 Arizona State 63-45 earlier in the day Saturday. That game will tip off at 9:30 p.m. EDT Monday in Salt Lake City, and the winner will advance to next week’s regional semifinals in Dayton, Ohio.