Following a bye week in which No. 5 Notre Dame didn’t have to play a weekday game, it took the Fighting Irish one half to fully show up again Sunday afternoon during an 85-69 victory against Georgia Tech at the Purcell Pavilion.
Back on January 4, Notre Dame raced to a 48-18 halftime lead in Atlanta against the same Yellow Jackets. This time a tenacious and physical Georgia Tech squad went into the halftime locker room with a 39-39 tie. Much more intense Fighting Irish defensive pressure in the second half eventually resulted in a 23-point Notre Dame lead after the break while improving to 23-2 overall and 11-1 in the ACC.
It was Notre Dame’s eight straight victory, none of which have come by less than 14 points.
Guards Arike Ogunbowale (27 points) and Jackie Young (22) paced the scoring, while junior forward Jessica Shepard posted her ninth double-double of the season (15 points, 11 rebounds), and third in her last five contests.
“We really buckled down defensively, that was the big key,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw of the second half. “We had the week off which I thought would give us a mental break — which it did — but it also … we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be in the first half.”
Georgia Tech (15-11 overall, 4-9 in the ACC) played with much vigor from the outset of the initial 20 minutes, trailing only 21-17 after the first quarter before an 8-0 run by the Yellow Jackets resulted in them taking a lead that soon expanded to 39-35. Baskets by Young and senior Kathryn Westbeld, the latter right before the halftime horn, enabled the score to be tied 39-39 at the intermission.
Helping keep the Yellow Jackets close in the highly physical game were 15 first-half turnovers by the Irish, plus a 1-of-6 effort from the foul line.
Notre Dame began the second-half with a 6-0 run and then — with the defensive intensity ratcheted up — went on a 10-0 spurt in a two-and-a-half-minute span to build the advantage to 64-52, before Tech scored the final two points to end the third quarter.
The fourth quarter began with a 15-2 Irish run that eliminated any remaining hopes the Yellow Jackets had.
Notre Dame committed only four turnovers in the second half, and the defensive pressure (the Yellow Jackets finished with 23 turnovers) led to numerous easy baskets and an 18-2 advantage in fast-break points.
“It was really just taking care of the ball and getting stops on defense,” said Young, who added seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals to her 10-of-13 shooting from the field. “We came out a little rusty.”
1. Second-Half Adjustment
Georgia Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph credited Notre Dame’s second half adjustment against its full-court pressure by getting the ball into the hands of Young and Ogunbowale — while stationing Ogunbowale on the back side that presented her with 2-on-1 advantage off some diagonal feeds
.Ogunbowale then would either drive to the basket aggressively (she was 8-of-9 from the foul line while drawing fouls) or dish off to the open woman (she had five assists). That also forced Georgia Tech to back off more from the press — the Irish went from 15 turnovers in the first half to four in the second — and go more to zone, which played into the Irish hands.
“That’s our game,” McGraw said of speeding up the game with her explosive guards. “We want to run … we definitely want to advance the ball as much as we can and not run as much offense as we can.”
2. Fatigue Factor In Fouls
Notre Dame entered the game ranked 8th nationally in fewest fouls committed, and part of that has been because of the emphasis on playing with a somewhat “passive aggressiveness” because of only seven scholarship players on the roster. The Irish did commit an inordinately high 15 fouls in the physical contest against Georgia Tech, but the guard trio of Ogunbowale, Young and Marina Mabrey combined for only four — despite Mabrey and Young playing 39 minutes apiece and Ogunbowale 36.
“We’re trying to trap a little bit more and stay aggressive without fouling,” McGraw said. “The guards are doing a really good job.”
She couldn’t resist adding a caveat.
“They’re probably just so tired, they can’t find the energy to foul,” she deadpanned.
3. Irish Enter Final Quarter Of ACC Play
The 16-game ACC schedule concludes with a couple of road trips this Thursday (Virginia) and Sunday (Boston College), followed by the same Thursday-Sunday format at home the ensuing week with Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.
Virginia stands third in the 15-team ACC with a 9-3 league mark and could be a viable challenge on the road, although the Cavaliers’ schedule is more back-loaded. NC State is 8-4 in the conference and a potential NCAA Tournament team, but against them in the regular season finale the Irish will be aiming to remain perfect at home in five ACC seasons (40-0).