Now, that's what the No. 1 preseason team should look like!
Consistent shooting from the floor all four quarters — never lower than 53.3 percent and 54.4 for the game — and a stout zone defense led No. 5 Notre Dame to a 79-61 victory versus No. 8 Florida State on Sunday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion before a sellout crowd (9,149). The victory clinched the fourth straight ACC regular season title for the Fighting Irish and earned them the No. 1 seed when their ACC Tournament quarterfinal action commences on Friday at Conway, S.C.
The Fighting Irish concluded the regular season with a 27-3 ledger, highlighted by winning their last 15 league contests after opening conference play with a stunning loss at North Carolina State Dec. 29.
Junior forward Brianna Turner tallied 24 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the field and recorded five blocked shots. Sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale contributed 19 points, highlighted by a 4-of-7 effort beyond the arc, and senior point guard Lindsay Allen handed out nine assists (with no turnovers) to tie the career record at Notre Dame.
However, the top story was junior forward Kathryn Westbeld returning to the starting lineup after not playing in two of the last three contests to rest an ankle injury. She played 31 minutes and knocked down 6 of 9 shots from the field (2 of 3 from three) for 14 points, grabbed a team-high six rebounds and dished out four assists.
“That was probably the best game we played all year,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “Offensively we shot the ball well in every quarter. Defensively, I thought our zone was very good. … We played a very intelligent game, so I see vast improvement there.
“We were anointed early on [in the season] and didn’t handle it well, and we were able to earn our way back. I think that says a lot for this team about what they were able to overcome to get here. … We wondered about the toughness when we were taking our lumps early. I think they really showed us a lot the way they really came out together today and played so hard.
“I love where we’re at right now. I think we’re exactly where we should be right now.”
The Irish asserted immediate control while jumping to a 7-0 lead and holding a 25-15 advantage at the end of the first quarter. The lead expanded to 43-30 at halftime with the five Irish starters shooting 16 of 25 from the floor (64.0 percent), including 5 of 7 from three-point range.
The worst stretch for the Irish came after a three-pointer by freshman Erin Boley provided a 59-40 Irish cushion, tying it for the largest lead of the game at that point. With both Turner and Allen on the bench (less than 30 seconds for Allen), FSU closed the final 1:18 of the third quarter with an 8-0 run to pull within 59-48 . The Seminoles narrowed it to single digits at 59-50 before a three by freshman Jackie Young broke the drought.
The dagger came from Westbeld when she drained a three just before the shot clock expired to give the Irish a 67-55 cushion with 5:23 left.
1. Shortening The Bench — While teams try to build depth during the regular season, getting into a tournament frame of mind often sees the starters play the lion’s share of minutes, other than in emergencies or blowouts. Young (19 minutes, five points, four rebounds, two assists and no turnovers) and Boley (15 minutes), both freshmen, will be the main figures off the bench in tournament action. Sophomore Ali Patberg was inserted for about 15 seconds before a turnover forced Allen back into the game. When the season becomes “win or go home” as it is now, coaches aim to survive or thrive with their best on the floor as much as possible.
2. Defensive Force — Turner blocked seven shots last Thursday against Boston College and five versus Florida State, but that data does not do justice to her impact on defense. Like a football cornerback with tremendous make-up speed, Turner’s 6-3 range and quickness covered a huge amount of territory that made Notre Dame’s zone so effective versus FSU. If there were stats for altered shots or hurried misses, Turner would be among the national leaders there, too. The only negative might be that there might be too much sense of confidence on defense to allow openings, because Turner often has it covered.
“She’s the best defensive player in the conference,” McGraw said. “The guards cannot foul as much because they know if they do get beat, instead of reaching from behind, they can just wait and see if Bri can help them out.”
3. By The Numbers — Notre Dame is 32-0 at home in its ACC history and 71-2 overall (including 9-0 in the ACC Tournament). The overall home winning streak in league play (including the old Big East) increased to 42, and the Irish also have won 41 consecutive games in the month of February, last losing Feb. 12, 2012, 65-63 at home to West Virginia.
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