ND Women’s Basketball
No. 5 Irish overcome largest deficit in program history to take down No. 6 Tennessee
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, January 19, 2018
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better comeback.”
That was Irish head coach Muffet McGraw’s sentiment in her postgame press conference after her squad rallied from a 23-point deficit to take down No. 6 Tennessee, 84-70. And it was the best comeback she had ever seen — the largest comeback in program history.
The Lady Vols (16-2, 4-1 SEC) came out firing on all cyclinders, outscoring the No. 5 Irish (17-2, 5-1 ACC) 27-10 in the first quarter. And that lead continued to stretch over the course of the second quarter, as the Irish failed to generate any sort of offensive momentum while the Volunteers went on a 10-4 run, giving the Vols their largest lead of the game.
“Gosh, wish the game was just a quarter-and-a-half — we’d be in business,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said.
The Irish came out of the media timeout with five minutes remaining in the half with a renewed energy, however, invigorating the crowd at Purcell Pavilion.
Slowly but surely, the Irish began to chip away at the deficit, aided by two 3-pointers from junior guard Arike Ogunbowale. Notre Dame went on a 10-0 run going into halftime to cut the Tennessee lead to 12.
“I thought [the lead] should’ve been eight,” McGraw said. “We missed a couple of really easy layups, so I think we looked at that and said, ‘You know, it really should be a six or eight-point game. We’re right there, we can turn this around.’”
McGraw said her focus at halftime was on organizing her team, as she felt there was not much good coming off the court on either end for the most part during the first half.
“We were talking about how we weren’t executing, we weren’t really doing anything. We weren’t guarding them, we weren’t rebounding, we weren’t running anything on offense, so at halftime, we just tried to get organized,” she said. “I think that was the biggest thing, trying to figure out what we were going to run, how we were going to attack them and started out the half with a couple of layups, and I think that got us going.”
The Irish came out quickly in the third quarter, but it seemed as if every time they made an offensive move, the Lady Vols had an answer. Irish junior forward Jessica Shepard made back-to-back jumpers. Tennessee freshman guard Rennia Davis answered with a 3. Ogunbowale drove down the court for a layup, followed by a jumper from sophomore guard Jackie Young. Lady Vols freshman guard Evina Westbrook answered with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, however, to maintain a double-digit lead for the Vols, preventing the Irish from making a considerable dent.
But the fourth quarter was where the damage was done. Notre Dame’s defense locked down the Volunteers, holding them to just 10 points, and the Irish outscored them 34-10 to defeat them handily. McGraw credited graduate student forward Kristina Nelson’s defensive efforts off the bench with making a notable difference. Irish junior guard Marina Mabrey said defensive stops early in the period created momentum for the team on both ends of the court.
“I think once we got a few stops and then we started scoring, we were a little bit more motivated to get another stop, another stop and keep inching back,” Mabrey, who scored 20 points and led the team with seven assists and four steals, said. “I think we started talking more and communicating from the back to the front of the zone, and that helped a lot.”
But one of the major difference-makers for the Irish in the fourth quarter was Tennessee’s tendency to turn the ball over. The Irish came away with four steals in the fourth quarter alone, while the Lady Vols turned the ball over seven times in the quarter and finished the game with 28 turnovers.
“We just needed to move the basketball and pass and cut. And down the stretch, we were just throwing the ball out of bounds,” Warlick said. “I don’t have a reason for it. We were throwing the ball all over the place, dang it. We just need to throw it to the people in orange, and we were throwing it to the people in green up in the stands.”
The Irish tied the game when Ogunbowale — who finished the game with 27 points, eight rebounds and two steals — knocked down a pair of free throws with 5:48 remaining in the game, and the squad never looked back; from that point on, Notre Dame went on a 19-5 run.
“I guess the Louisville game helped us because we’ve been in this position recently, we were down by 20, 30 recently,” Ogunbowale said. “We really were like, ‘We know we can come back.’ We just took it step-by-step, we were like, ‘Let’s cut five points and keep cutting five-point margins,’ and then we cut it to two. And we just kept going. … Yeah, we didn’t come back in that game. But we learned a lesson.”
The Irish, who lost 100-67 at No. 2 Louisville last week, their most recent game against a ranked opponent, came into this week discussing the fact that they had something to prove. However, with the grit and determination her team showed, McGraw felt her team proved itself a competitor once again.
“That was an unbelievable win. I am so proud of this team right now because of the fight,” McGraw said. “We went down to Louisville and got our ass kicked and really needed to respond, and I think we had something to prove tonight, and we got down 23 and we continued to fight, we continued to compete. I thought the difference in the game really was our defense. Our defense in the second half — we got deflections, we got steals, we got rebounds, and that got us our transition game. We attacked the rim a lot better in the second half.”
The Irish will next take the court Sunday against Clemson at Purcell Pavilion at 1 p.m.