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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish play on aircraft carrier

By Brian Hartnett | Monday, November 12, 2012

No. 7 Notre Dame faced an unprecedented venue and uncertain weather conditions when it took to the makeshift court on the U.S.S. Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., on Friday to battle No. 19 Ohio State.

The results, however, were familiar to the Irish, as they won their 18th-consecutive season opener with a 57-51 victory over the Buckeyes in the inaugural Carrier Classic.

Junior forward Natalie Achonwa paced the Irish (1-0) with 17 points and 10 rebounds, registering her second career double-double. The trio of Achonwa, junior guard Kayla McBride and senior guard Skylar Diggins accounted for 44 of Notre Dame’s 57 points, as McBride finished with 16 points and Diggins added 11.

“[Achonwa] is going to be the one we count on,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I would say she’s capable of averaging a double-double in every game, depending on the minutes she plays. She makes a huge difference when she’s on the floor.”

Playing in the first women’s basketball game on an aircraft carrier, Notre Dame faced a backdrop of bright sunshine to start the game. As the sun set in the second half, temperatures dropped into the 40s and the wind picked up, creating unique challenges for both teams.

“I thought it was good we got a chance to handle some adversity with the elements,” McGraw said. “I was wishing a few more of the girls had played Bookstore Basketball because that would have been good practice with the wind.”

Both the Irish and the Buckeyes (0-1) struggled to score in a first half that featured several lead changes. The Irish shot only 32.3 percent from the field in the first half, but carried a 25-22 lead into halftime.

“Offensively, we can play better,” McGraw said. “We can be a little bit sharper with our execution. I think we turned it over too much, but we had some mistakes I don’t think we’ll make throughout the year.”

The Irish started the second half on a 10-3 run and took a 35-25 lead, their largest of the contest, after Diggins sunk a free throw with 15:41 left in the game. Ohio State responded with a 10-2 run to cut Notre Dame’s lead to two with 11:05 remaining, but McBride put an end to the run with a jumper on the opposite end.

“Kayla McBride hit a huge basket when they cut it to two late in the game,” McGraw said. “She and [Diggins] really showed their leadership.”

The Buckeyes cut the lead to 47-45 after senior guard Amber Stokes intercepted Diggins’ pass and drove for an uncontested layup with 4:35 to go. The Irish forced a turnover on Ohio State’s next possession, and Achonwa hit a jumper to widen the lead to four. The Buckeyes would not come within three points the rest of the half, as Notre Dame held on to win 57-51.

“There were times when we got ahead and let them back in the game, but it was a good chance to handle adversity,” McGraw said. “Playing in a close game our first time out is really going to help us down the road.”

Notre Dame won the battle on the boards, as the team had a 43-32 edge in rebounds. Freshman guard Jewell Loyd led the team with 12 rebounds. Sophomore forward Markisha Wright added seven rebounds off the bench.

“I was really pleased with our defense and rebounding,” McGraw said. “We really felt the game was going to be won on the boards. I’ll be ecstatic if we can keep that effort up all year.”

Notre Dame played in front of a crowd filled with hundreds of active duty and retired troops. One of those in attendance was 1999 Notre Dame graduate and former Irish women’s basketball player Danielle Green, who was wounded in action while serving in Baghdad in 2004. McGraw said the atmosphere of the game created a memorable experience for the team.

“I thought it was phenomenal and something that we’ll always remember,” McGraw said. “It was great to be surrounded by the military and have a chance to thank them for everything they’ve done for us.”

Notre Dame will return home to battle Massachusetts on Nov. 18 at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Brian Hartnett at [email protected]