January 20, 2014
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wanted to see how her undefeated team would respond to a test.
She got just the answer she wanted.
Kayla McBride scored 22 points to lead five players in double figures Monday as the second-ranked Fighting Irish erased an early 12-point deficit in an 86-70 victory over No. 11/10 Tennessee. Before Monday, Notre Dame (17-0) hadn't trailed by more than seven points all season.
"We're veterans," McGraw said. "I thought we're going to learn a good lesson, win or lose. It's going to help us down the road, prepare us for the ACC, (playing in) a great crowd, a hostile environment. We hadn't really seen anything quite this big this year. I thought it was just a great opportunity for us to see where we are."
Since losing the first 20 games in this series, Notre Dame has beaten Tennessee four straight times by an average margin of 17 points. Notre Dame continued its recent mastery of Tennessee by outscoring the Lady Vols 45-24 in the second half.
After getting off to a sizzling start, Tennessee shot 8 of 32 and committed 12 turnovers in the second half. Tennessee (14-4) has led at halftime in each of its last three losses.
"It feels like this team is very sensitive," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We want it so much that it's almost detrimental to us. We want it so badly. I would love to see how we'd play when everybody's clicking on all cylinders. It would really be a lot of fun, but that's up to me, to put them in positions and to get them ready for the next game."
Michaela Mabrey and Natalie Achonwa each scored 15 points for Notre Dame, which hit 10 of 20 3-pointers. Madison Cable had 12 points and Jewell Loyd added 11. Mabrey and Cable helped Notre Dame's bench outscore Tennessee's reserves 36-16.
Meighan Simmons scored 23 points and shot 10 of 14 for Tennessee (14-4). Isabelle Harrison had 13 points and 16 rebounds. Ariel Massengale had 14 points, all in the first nine minutes.
Notre Dame entered the night leading the nation in field-goal percentage (.517), 3-point percentage (.436) and assists per game (22.4) while racing to the second-fastest start in school history, behind the 2000-01 national championship team that opened 23-0. Tennessee, on the other hand, had dropped three of its last seven games and was struggling to find its footing.
Yet it was Tennessee that looked like the team on a roll in the early going.
"I thought at halftime we were lucky to be down five," McGraw said.
Tennessee grabbed a 42-30 lead by beating the hot-shooting Irish at their own game. Tennessee shot 55.9 percent (19 of 34) overall and went 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first half against a Notre Dame team that hadn't allowed any opponent to make more than 44.9 percent of its shots all season.
Notre Dame committed three turnovers in the first 90 seconds of the game and had to adjust to playing without Loyd, who picked up two fouls in the first 5 1/2 minutes of the game and sat out the rest of the first half. Loyd entered the night averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game.
But the Irish never panicked.
"We've been through so much - three (straight) Final Fours," said McBride, who had seven assists to go along with her 22 points. "We've been in these types of environments with NCAA tournament games. We just had to calm everybody down and execute our game plan."
Sure enough, Notre Dame regained the momentum once Tennessee cooled off.
After making 19 of its first 28 shots, Tennessee missed 17 of its next 18 attempts to allow Notre Dame to claw back into the game. Tennessee missed its last six shots of the first half and started the second half by shooting 1 of 12.
Notre Dame pulled ahead 49-48 when Taya Reimer capped a 14-2 run that started late in the first half by converting a three-point play with 15:27 remaining. After Tennessee briefly regained the lead, Notre Dame sank a trio of 3-pointers on a 9-0 spurt that gave the Irish a 58-51 advantage.
Simmons sank a 3-pointer that cut Notre Dame's advantage to 60-56 with 10:09 remaining, but the Irish scored the next 13 points to put the game away.
"We're going to be all right," Massengale said. "We've just got to find out what it's going to take for this team to play 40 minutes of basketball. In the first half, we seriously played the best basketball we've played all season. We've got to be able to sustain that for 40 minutes."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame continues the second-best start in program history at 17-0, topped only by the 2000-01 Fighting Irish squad that began its season at 23-0 ... the Fighting Irish are 4-0 against ranked opponents this season and 31-5 (.861) against Top 25 teams since the start of the 2011-12 season ... Notre Dame has won 40 consecutive regular season games, as well as 29 consecutive regular season road games, both ongoing school records ... Monday's win marked the first time the Fighting Irish rallied from a double-digit deficit to win since Feb. 26, 2013, against Syracuse, when they climbed out of an early 15-point hole (22-7) to post a 79-68 Senior Night victory at Purcell Pavilion ... the 29-point reversal (12 points down to 17 points up midway through the second half) was the largest for Notre Dame since a 31-point swing on March 30, 2001, when the Fighting Irish trailed Connecticut 47-31 late in the first half of their NCAA Women's Final Four national semifinal in St. Louis, before storming back to defeat the Huskies, 90-75, en route to the program's first national championship ... prior to Monday, Notre Dame's largest deficit of the season had been seven points (33-26 with 0:55 left in the first half at Oregon State), and that OSU game was the only other time this year the Fighting Irish trailed at halftime (33-31 at OSU; won 70-58) ... Notre Dame has won its last four series games against Tennessee, all by double figures (average margin of victory of 17 points) ... the Fighting Irish posted their largest point total ever in their 24-game series against the Lady Vols, surpassing an 85-82 loss to UT on Jan. 12, 1992, at Purcell Pavilion ... Notre Dame earned its second consecutive win over Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena after going winless in its first eight series games against the Lady Vols in Knoxville ... the Fighting Irish senior class of tri-captains Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker and Kayla McBride registered its 11th combined win in 13 career games against Connecticut and Tennessee (seven vs. Connecticut, four vs. Tennessee), the most collective wins against UConn and UT by any senior class for any school in the past 25 years, dating back to Connecticut's first NCAA postseason appearance in 1988-89 (last year's Notre Dame senior class of Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner had a combined 10 wins in their careers -- the next closest senior class is the Rutgers Class of 2008 that had six combined wins against two of the traditional women's basketball powerhouses) ... the current Notre Dame seniors have led the program to a 118-14 (.894) record in their careers, the second-most wins by a senior class in school history behind only last year's group (130-20 record) ... the Fighting Irish move to 17-33 (.340) all-time against current Southeastern Conference schools, with wins in 13 of their last 21 games against the SEC ... Notre Dame tied its season high with 10 three-pointers, having also canned 10 treys in its win over UCLA on Dec. 7 at Purcell Pavilion ... the Fighting Irish also matched their season best with five double-figure scorers for the second game in a row (fourth time this year), improving to 88-5 (.946) since the start of the 2009-10 season when they have FOUR double-digit scorers, including wins in 58 of their last 59 such outings ... Notre Dame finished on the negative side of the rebounding margin for just the second time all season (Central Michigan ended up with a slim 39-38 edge on Dec. 22 at Purcell Pavilion) ... the Fighting Irish bench scored at least 30 points for the 11th time this season ... Notre Dame dished out at least 21 assists in a game for the 13th time this year ... the Fighting Irish shot 50 percent or better from the field for the 10th time this season ... Notre Dame shot 50 percent or better from the three-point line for the seventh time this year ... McBride tied her career high with seven assists, having also had that many dimes against Duke in the NCAA Norfolk Regional final on April 2, 2013, in Norfolk, Va. ... McBride posted her fourth consecutive 20-point game and sixth of the season ... Achonwa moved into 21st place on the Notre Dame career scoring list with 1,245 points, passing Mary Beth Schueth (1,233 from 1981-85) ... Achonwa also rose to seventh place on the Fighting Irish career rebounding list with 834 boards, passing Lindsay Schrader (828 from 2005-10) ... sophomore guard Jewell Loyd extended her string of consecutive double-figure scoring games to 23 in a row, the fourth-longest run in school history and longest since Natalie Novosel's 27-game streak from 2011-12.