March 19, 2011
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Notre Dame's Brittany Mallory had no points and one assist in Saturday's 67-54 first-round NCAA tournament win over Utah.
What won't show in the stats was her defensive effort in cooling off the hot-shooting Iwalani Rodrigues.
"At some point in the second half, we put Brittany on No. 3 and she really shut her down," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Utah's sophomore guard. "Brittany was the key."
Offensively, Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel scored 20 points apiece to lead the second-seeded Irish past 15th-seeded Utah.
The Irish (27-7) face Temple (24-8) in a second-round game at 9:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. MT) Monday on ESPN2.
"We wanted to go to Sky in the second half and get something going to the rim," McGraw said. "We hoped we could get somebody rolling on the pick-and-roll but she hit a 3, got to the foul line and she did a lot of really good things during that stretch. We really needed it at that point to get some confidence and relax a little bit."
Utah led late in the first half and was within five points with 8 minutes remaining, but the Irish went on a 10-2 run to put the game out of reach.
"In that huddle, we knew we needed to have a defensive lockdown," said Notre Dame forward Becca Bruszewski. "We needed to rotate over and box out, do all the little things we weren't paying attention to. We calmed down and reset."
Rodrigues would lead Utah with 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting but didn't score another field goal after her string of eight straight points pulled Utah within 43-41.
Notre Dame went on a 6-0 run after that, fueled by back-to-back scores by Diggins and Novosel.
Then Notre Dame's 6-2 forward Devereaux Peters came up big down the stretch and finished with four blocks.
"Devereaux saves a lot of us," Diggins said. "One time my man got around me and she blocked it behind me. I just looked up and said, 'Thanks a lot."'
Janita Badon had three steals for Utah but struggled offensively, hitting only 4 of 21 shots.
"They are all long and all taller than me. I'd get in the lane and 'where are my teammates?' They are long and athletic and play great defense. They were at all the spots they needed to be," Badon said.
Utah (18-17) had the most losses of any team in the NCAA field, but entered Saturday's game on a roll, having won four games in five days to claim the Mountain West Conference tourney title.
The young Utes had hoped to pull off another shocker.
But they couldn't get their shots to fall Saturday.
Utah shot just 32.7 percent and committed 18 turnovers.
"We played a top team in the country to a dead heat except for one stretch and I'm just really proud with how hard they competed," said Utah interim coach Anthony Levrets. "My players have huge hearts and you knew they weren't going to quit playing."
Levrets acknowledged going into the game that Notre Dame had better players head-to-head. But he hoped a solid team effort would make the difference.
The Irish refused to play that game.
"They switched their defense in the second half and forced us to make plays one-on-one and right now, that's not our strength," he said. "They made one-on-one baskets on us and we're not quite there to finish some of those plays. We played well enough to win against a lot of teams today but not against that team."
Four Notre Dame players scored in double figures, with Bruszewski adding 13 and Peters 12.
Utah's Michelle Harrison had 16 rebounds, nine on the offensive end, while Michelle Plouffe had eight boards. But Plouffe, the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, could not get her shot to go down.
Her buzzer-beater in the MWC tourney semifinals beat BYU, and she scored eight points in overtime to lead Utah past TCU in the title game. But with Mallory guarding Plouffe early, she shot just 2 of 10 on Saturday, and 1 of 4 from 3-point range. Two early fouls limited Plouffe to 10 minutes in the first half.
After Badon's three-point play pulled Utah within 53-48 with 8:02 remaining, Plouffe had a chance to cut it even more, but she missed a layup. Novosel and Bruszewski sank two free throws apiece at the other end to bump Notre Dame's lead back to 57-48.
Notre Dame entered the tourney having lost to No. 1-ranked UConn in the Big East finals. But the Irish hadn't dropped two in a row since falling to UCLA and Kentucky early.
They made sure Utah wouldn't end that streak.
"We stepped up our defensive intensity and we knew that would be what would win the game for us," Novosel said. "We came out a little anxious, a little too excited, but we finished strong."
-- ND --
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame has won its first-round game in the NCAA Championship in 14 of its last 16 appearances (1996-present) ... the Fighting Irish improve to 28-16 (.636) all-time in 18 NCAA Championship appearances ... Notre Dame is 16-2 (.889) in the NCAA Championship when holding its opponent to 60 points or fewer ... the Fighting Irish are 5-2 (.714) all-time as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Championship ... Notre Dame moved to 3-0 all-time against Utah (2-0 in the NCAA Championship) with all three games featuring remarkable similar scores -- 69-54 in the 2001 NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals (at Denver), 68-55 at the 2005 Duel in the Desert tournament (in Las Vegas), and 67-54 on Saturday night ... the Fighting Irish are 10-2 (.833) all-time against the current Mountain West Conference alignment, including a 7-2 (.778) record away from home (road and neutral sites combined) ... Saturday marked Notre Dame's first game ever in the state of Utah ... for only the fifth time all season, the Fighting Irish were outrebounded, with the minus-7 margin being the largest of the season against Notre Dame (Baylor on Dec. 1 and Louisville on March 6 both had five-rebound margins over the Fighting Irish) ... Notre Dame had two players score at least 20 points in the same NCAA Championship game for just the fifth time in school history, and the first since March 21, 2005, when Megan Duffy scored 24 points and Jacqueline Batteast added 20 points in a 70-61 loss to Arizona State in an NCAA Tempe Region second round game at Fresno, Calif. ... senior forward Devereaux Peters registered four blocked shots, the most by a Fighting Irish player in an NCAA Championship game since March 30, 2003, when Teresa Borton (5) and Jacqueline Batteast (4) both topped that mark in a 66-47 loss to Purdue in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at Dayton, Ohio ...Peters also moved into sixth place on Notre Dame's career blocked shots list with 143 rejections, passing Katryna Gaither (141 from 1993-97) ... senior forward Becca Bruszewski moved up another rung on the Notre Dame all-time scoring list with 1,111 points, passing Danielle Green (1,106 from 1996-2000) for 22nd place ... Bruszewski also dished out a season-high six assists (one shy of her career high set on Jan. 19, 2010, at Louisville) on the way to her second "5-5-5" game of the season (also at South Florida on Feb. 5) and third of her career.