Feb. 20, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Skylar Diggins felt the pressure building during Notre Dame's 21-game win streak. Now that it's firmly in the past, the guard and her teammates have their swagger back.
Diggins scored 21 points and sophomore Kayla McBride added 15 to lead the No. 3 Fighting Irish over No. 16 Louisville 68-52 on Monday and moving them one step closer to a BIG EAST title.
"I think we're finally getting back to playing with our swag, playing our style of basketball. And it feels good. We're having fun out there again," said Diggins, who added seven assists. "We're smiling, we're laughing, you know what I mean? With that tough schedule, we took it too serious, kind of lost the fun in it."
Notre Dame (26-2, 13-1) has won two straight since losing at home to West Virginia and controls its destiny in its quest for its first regular-season league championship since 2001, when the Irish tied Connecticut on the way to the national title.
Notre Dame is a game up in the loss column against the Huskies with a game left against South Florida on Saturday before playing at Connecticut next Monday.
Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel said she'd pick the Irish if forced to choose after the Cardinals also lost to the Huskies at home on Feb. 7.
"I would say Notre Dame, just because they're older and they're wiser," Schimmel said. "UConn is pretty young, so I'd say Notre Dame."
Antonita Slaughter scored 12 points for the Cardinals (19-8, 8-6), who failed to reach the 20-win plateau with their fourth loss in six games.
"It's contagious when one of us is hitting," Diggins said. "It's a point guard's dream just to be able to pass to anybody and have the confidence they're going to make the shot."
The Irish struggled from the field in the first half before using a 12-4 run early in the second to take their first double-digit lead when Peters had a layup and made two free throws on the next possession to put Notre Dame ahead 44-33.
After Louisville cut it to 46-39 on a layup by Shawnta' Dyer off a pass from Schimmel with 8:55 left, Mallory answered with a 3-pointer in the left corner following a timeout. She pumped her fist and clapped twice on a play that thwarted a potential run and silenced the Louisville crowd.
"We just could not come out with that big stop. We've got it to seven with under nine (minutes), and then have a little bit of a breakdown on defense and give up a three," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We did not finish out the game the last three minutes as hard as we had played the first 37 minutes. So then it looks like it's a 16-point game and an easy win for them."
Mallory's shot turned out to be a big one. The Cardinals missed 14 of their 16 3-point attempts as Notre Dame surged ahead.
Diggins hit 11 of 12 free throws, and Notre Dame finished 17 of 18 overall, matching its best shooting performance at the line since Jan. 16, 2008 against Villanova.
Kaila Turner's 3-pointer was the difference in a closely contested first half, giving Notre Dame a 28-25 lead at the break. The Irish looked like a different team when they returned to the floor.
"I thought we looked like our old selves again, we scored the ball well, shot the ball well, passed it well," Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. "Did pretty much everything we needed to do in the second half and was really pleased with that."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame improves to 9-1 this season against ranked opponents, including a 5-1 record away from home (4-1 road, 1-0 neutral) ... the nine wins over ranked teams tie the school record for one season set by the 2000-01 club, although that team's last four Top 25 wins came in the NCAA Championship ... the nine regular-season Top 25 victories are a new school record, outpacing the seven ranked wins the Fighting Irish posted during the regular season in both 2003-04 and 2004-05 ... of those nine wins over ranked opponents (average margin of victory of 17.8 ppg.), six have come by double figures (average margin of victory of 23.7 ppg.), including the past four true road games against Top 25 foes (average margin of victory of 23.5 ppg.), and the past five games overall against ranked teams (average margin of victory of 22.8 ppg.) ... Louisville becomes the sixth Top 25 opponent (in 10 games) that Notre Dame has held to 60 points or fewer this season ... Notre Dame's 26 victories tie the school record for wins in the regular season, with the 2000-01 squad completing its regular season at 26-1 ... the Fighting Irish move to 97-28 (.776) in the month of February since joining the BIG EAST Conference in 1995-96, and 145-43 (.771) in February games during the 25-year tenure of head coach Muffet McGraw (1987-88 to present) ... Notre Dame earns its fifth consecutive win over Louisville and takes an 8-4 lead in the series with the Cardinals (7-2 since Louisville joined the BIG EAST in 2005-06) ... the Fighting Irish are 4-1 all-time when playing on the road at Louisville, part of an unusual series trend that has seen the home team win just three times in the nine on-campus games ... this was only the fourth game in the Notre Dame-Louisville series to be decided by more than 15 points ... the Fighting Irish held the Cardinals to 52 points, matching the hosts' lowest offensive output in the 12-game series (89-52 Notre Dame on March 6, 2010, in the second round of the BIG EAST Championship at Hartford, Conn.) ... the Fighting Irish also have held Louisville to 60 points or fewer in the past five matchups between the programs ... Notre Dame's .944 free throw percentage (17-of-18) tied for the fourth-best mark in school history and was its best since Jan. 16, 2008, when the Fighting Irish shot a similar .944 percentage (17-of-18) in a win over Villanova at Purcell Pavilion ... Notre Dame had four players score in double figures for the 14th time this season, while improving to 48-4 (.923) in such games during the past three years (2009-10 to present) ... the Fighting Irish were limited to a season-low 28 rebounds, three fewer than their total in a 90-70 victory over DePaul on Feb. 5 at Purcell Pavilion ... Louisville is the first Notre Dame opponent to shoot better than 90 percent from the foul line since Jan. 8, 2011, when Connecticut made 26-of-27 free throws (.963) in a 79-76 win at Purcell Pavilion ... junior guard Skylar Diggins registered her 29th career 20-point game, tying her for fifth in school history with Trena Keys (1982-86) and Charel Allen (2004-08) ... fifth-year senior forward Devereaux Peters moved up to seventh place on Notre Dame's career rebounding list with 827 boards, one more than Margaret Nowlin had from 1988-92, and one fewer than Lindsay Schrader piled up from 2005-10 ... Peters also jumped to 22nd place on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,201 points, passing Krissi Davis (1,194 from 1987-91) and coming within one point of Heidi Bunek (1,202 from 1985-89) ... senior guard/tri-captain Natalie Novosel took over sole possession of 15th place on the Notre Dame career scoring list with 1,379 points, breaking from a tie with Shari Matvey (1979-83).