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ND Women’s Basketball

Top-ranked Irish fall short of comeback against Tar Heels

| Monday, January 28, 2019

Notre Dame fell to North Carolina 78-73 Sunday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Irish (19-2, 6-1 ACC) came in on a high, ranked No. 1 nationally and having won 12 straight games, the most recent coming against powerhouse Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn. Prior to the game, UNC was 2-26 all-time against No. 1 ranked teams, with their only wins coming against Duke.

The Irish’s 87.8 points and 19.6 assists per game, combined with better than 50 percent shooting from the field have led to a 25.6-point scoring advantage, all of which rank first in ACC play. Senior guard Arike Ogunbowale came into the game averaging an ACC leading 21.8 points per game, good for ninth nationally.

Annie Smierciak

Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard reaches to catch a pass during Notre Dame’s 71-89 loss to UConn at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 2.

The game started in Notre Dame’s favor. Ogunbowale was very involved early, making the first basket of the game on a transition pull-up and distributing the ball on her way to her five assists. North Carolina eventually settled down as they rallied from an early deficit and forced a Notre Dame timeout with the score tied at 16 apiece. The Tar Heel defense gave Ogunbowale fits, as she had to work to avoid charges and had the ball stripped from her twice, as she finished the first quarter with only the one basket. Despite her struggles, Notre Dame held a 19-18 lead to begin the second quarter.

In the second quarter, it remained a back-and-forth affair as Carolina answered every basket the Irish made before eventually taking the lead in the middle of the period. Tar Heel redshirt senior Paris Kea was a handful for the Irish as she constantly drove the ball inside and either finished or dished it to teammates for layups. Kea’s play even earned her recognition from Irish head coach Muffet McGraw.

“I thought Carolina played a great game,” McGraw said. “Especially Kea, I mean she was the best player on the floor. We had no answer for her. Just couldn’t guard her from anywhere. Couldn’t contain her. Couldn’t guard her off the three-point line. It was really disappointing to see our defense collapse like that.

Sophomore center Janelle Bailey was very productive as well, thanks in large part to Kea drawing help defense away from her teammates.  After Bailey gave Carolina a 30-29 lead on a reverse layup, senior guard Marina Mabrey then responded with a three pointer and a layup off of an Ogunbowale steal.  At the same time, McGraw looked to confuse the Tar Heels with a 1-3-1 zone that led to three turnovers as Notre Dame went on a 7-0 run.  However, the home team would not go away as they responded with layups by junior guard Shayla Bennett and Bailey each to cut the lead to 36-34 going into the half.

The Irish, who had 10 turnovers in the first half and 20 in the game, were hurting from the loss of junior guard Jackie Young, who did not play Sunday due to an ankle injury but posted the school’s seventh triple-double of all time against Tennessee several days prior.

“I don’t know. We clearly weren’t playing our normal game,” McGraw said in regards to the team’s sloppy play against North Carolina. “I know the last game I didn’t really sub much and that probably came back to haunt us a little bit. We’re down one player, which is not an excuse because that had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. I don’t know, it’s just a lack of focus.”

As the second half unfolded, Kea emerged as the premier player. She scored 19 points in the third period alone, including two four-point swings, one off of a fouled three pointer and the other coming from a stolen inbound pass for successive layups. McGraw knew going in that Kea could be a handful for their defense.

“I knew Kea was capable of going off like that,” said McGraw, “[she] and [redshirt junior guard Stephanie] Watts are a deadly combination.”

After a Watts 3-pointer gave the Tar Heels a 55-48 lead, McGraw called timeout to regroup, but Carolina kept the pressure on the Irish, with a Kea jumper capping her dominant performance in the third as the Tar Heels led 62-53 at the break. Mabrey did her best to counter the opposition, going 4-6 from beyond the arc with 18 points through the third quarter. She finished with a team-high 20 points in the game.

Ogunbowale struggled with only six points and five assists on 2-9 shooting as the fourth quarter started.  Despite their best player’s struggles, the defending national champions would not surrender.  Freshman guard Jordan Nixon hit a layup with 9:09 remaining in the fourth quarter, followed by two Shepard free throws and then two putbacks for the Irish. A Mabrey layup off of a Shepard outlet tied the game, and a runner in the lane by Ogunbowale capped off a 12-0 run to give Notre Dame the lead back at 65-63.

North Carolina responded, and a Watts three with 2:41 left put the home team up 69-65, but Ogunbowale hit her first and only three of the game to cut it to one, and the next play, senior forward Brianna Turner tied the game at 71-71 with an and-1 layup. However, Tar Heel sophomore Leah Church’s only basket of the game came on a corner 3-pointer to put the home team back up, and Kea hit a layup with 40 seconds left to make it a 76-71 Carolina lead.

After a Shepard layup and illegal screen by Kea, Notre Dame had one more chance to tie the game, but Shepard threw the ball out of bounds over Mabrey’s head. Kea would go 2-4 from the free throw line down the stretch to give her 30 points and 10 assists in the game as the Irish couldn’t muster another bucket in the final 30 seconds.

”Credit them, they did everything they needed to do to win,” McGraw said. ”We had some key turnovers, especially late in the game. We haven’t been in that situation enough, and we obviously need to practice it quite a bit more. Disappointing.”

Despite the tough loss, McGraw believes that her team can grow from the experience.

“I think, late game, we cut it to two, we had a chance, and we threw it away,” McGraw said. “It’s good to be in this situation, it’s going to help us down the road.”

 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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