In a week replete with upsets of top-10 teams, No. 7 Notre Dame avoided one at Syracuse Sunday afternoon to put itself back into conversation for a No. 1 seed again in the NCAA Tournament.
The Fighting Irish overcame a 13-point lead built by No. 21 Syracuse to pull out an 85-80 victory and improve to 25-3, including 13-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The intense outing was played in front of a Syracuse women’s school record 11,021 at the Carrier Dome and ended an 18-game home winning streak by the Orange, last year’s national runner-up. It also was Notre Dame’s 16th consecutive victory against Syracuse.
Junior forward Brianna Turner tallied a career high 31 points while converting 13 of her 14 field-goal attempts and dominating the paint against the Orange with her post play, crisp, aggressive and well-timed cuts to the basket and excellent passing from teammates.
Syracuse led 63-54 late in the third quarter before the Irish went on a game-deciding 15-0 run, including 10-0 to start the fourth quarter, to eke out the win in a contest that had a Final Four atmosphere.
The stat of the game was Notre Dame out-rebounded Syracuse 44-20 — including 18-5 on offense that resulted in 22 second-chance points compared to three by Syracuse. Eight of those offensive rebounds came in the fourth quarter, which the Irish won 26-17. The Orange led the ACC in offensive rebounding entering the game.
Syracuse scored on each of its first eight possessions and opened a remarkable 6-of-6 from three-point range to build a 23-10 advantage en route to 30 first-quarter points. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw mixed in every conceivable defense — triangle-and-two, 2-3 zone, 1-2-2 zone, press, man-to-man … to help combat Syracuse’s explosive offense that was second in the ACC in scoring (exactly 80.0 points per game). The Orange finished 12-of-26 beyond the arc, but cooled down some by converting only six of their final 20 attempts from there.
Keeping the Irish in the contest during the Orange's sizzling first quarter was sophomore guard Marina Mabrey, who tallied 13 of the team’s 24 points, including her first three treys. She finished with 22 points — her third straight 20-plus performance and sixth in ACC play this year — to go with five assists.
Similar to the game at Clemson three nights ago, an almost identical 84-80 win, Mabrey converted two clutch free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to give the Irish an 83-80 edge. A missed three by Syracuse and two more free throws by Turner sealed the verdict.
The Irish host Boston College, which is in last place in the 15-team ACC (2-12 in the league and 9-18 overall), on Thursday night and close the regular season on Sunday versus Florida State, which will try to win at least a share of the ACC title with a victory at Notre Dame.
1. Major Assistance — Junior forward Kathryn Westbeld remains a relatively unsung hero with her passing from the high post. Not able to play at Clemson because of a lingering ankle injury, she scored eight points (4-of-7 from the field) in 20 minutes at Syracuse, but more significant were her team- and career-high six assists — almost all perfectly timed passes to Turner cutting to the basket from the perimeter.
“Kat and Erin [Boley] did a really good job of getting to the spot,” Turner praised. “Our guards did a good job of getting the ball to them, which equaled me cutting down there for a lay-up.”
It was almost hockey-like in awarding double assists on a goal.
Meanwhile, junior guard Arike Ogunbowale continues to mature as a passer while viewing the whole court. Last year and earlier this season, she forced many an ill-advised shot while driving to the basket. In the past month, she has made excellent feeds off drives that sucked in defenses, including four more assists at Syracuse while taking only seven shots (making three) in 26 minutes.
2. Jumpin’ Jackie — Freshman guard Jackie Young from the outset has played much bigger than her six-foot frame, and it continues to show with her rebounding prowess. Coming into the Syracuse contest she collected 24 caroms in her last three contests (8.0 per game) off the bench. In 24 minutes against the Orange she corralled a career high 12 — seven on offense with sheer determination. She also contributed eight points, but the all-time scoring leader in the state of Indiana is providing huge evidence that she has an all-around game.
“We were able to use more clock toward the end,” said Turner, who had nine rebounds of her own, of Young’s work on the boards that created extra possessions. “Jackie really did great job attacking the rebounds.”
3. Just Win, Baby — This is a time of year when upsets become more prevalent as conference tournaments loom and bubble teams play with heightened urgency. Top 6-teams Baylor, Florida State (twice) and South Carolina (twice) all were vanquished this week, and even mighty UConn survived a 63-60 tussle at 16-11 Tulane — a game Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma said his team didn’t deserve to win. Meanwhile, No. 8 Texas, which could have moved ahead of Notre Dame after defeating Baylor and Florida State, lost to No. 19 Oklahoma.
“This was a game I was really worried about,” McGraw said. “There was a lot of pressure on us to hold on to first place [in the ACC]... and it was tough.”
Never, ever take victory for granted or undersell it. Quietly, Notre Dame continues to rise after slightly falling off the radar in January.
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