March 26, 2011
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) - Hands with green fingernail polish - Notre Dame's NCAA tournament tradition - seemed to swipe at every dribble and reach for every pass.
Brittany Mallory scored a season-high 20 points, and Notre Dame's defensive pressure forced 24 turnovers and quickly took its toll in a 78-53 win over Oklahoma on Saturday that sent the Fighting Irish to the regional final.
Those green-painted fingers were everywhere.
"Maybe they don't get enough credit for their defense because their offense is so salty," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said.
Notre Dame (29-7) will play top-seeded Tennessee on Monday (7 p.m. ET on ESPNHD/ESPN3.com). The Lady Vols (34-2) pulled away from Ohio State in the second half for an 85-75 win - their 25th straight - in the other semifinal.
Nicole Griffin scored 18 points for Oklahoma (23-12), which reached the Final Four each of the last two years. Notre Dame's go-for-the-ball pressure crumpled the Sooners' guard-driven offense, which had only eight field goals and 14 turnovers in the decisive first half.
"They were really prepared, really physical," Oklahoma guard Whitney Hand said. "I thought we got scatterbrained and tight."
It was the third time in the last four years that the Sooners and Fighting Irish met in the NCAA tournament. The first two games dripped with drama and went to overtime. Notre Dame won the first time, 79-75 in the second round in 2008. Oklahoma got the rematch, 77-72 last year in a regional semifinal in Kansas City.
No overtime needed this time. Notre Dame's defense ended all the drama right away.
"Last year's game was in the front of my mind the whole 40 minutes," said Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins, who had 12 assists.
Oklahoma's guard-driven offense led by Danielle Robinson (18.4 points per game) and freshman Aaryn Ellenberg (16.4) got rolling late in the season and pulled them through the first two rounds of the tournament. They were under constant pressure from a defense that ranks third in the country in steals. Robinson finished with 16 points on 6 of 16 shooting with seven turnovers. Ellenberg had nine points on 4 of 13 shooting.
Notre Dame had a 47-24 edge in rebounding, limiting the Sooners to two offensive rebounds.
"Unfortunately, we didn't give them much of a fight," Coale said. "We got absolutely demoralized on the boards."
Notre Dame opened with a 9-4 run that included three 3s by Mallory, who hadn't made more than three in any game this season. The senior guard was 0 for 10 from behind the arc in her last three games. She finished with a career-high six 3s.
"I had to forget about that," Mallory said of her recent shooting slump. "I had to keep shooting and know they would eventually come. I'm just glad they fell today."
Notre Dame closed the first half with a 21-4 run set up by the incessant defensive pressure. Notre Dame had nine steals and forced 14 turnovers in the first half.
The Fighting Irish suffered a setback when senior forward Becca Bruszewski twisted her left knee in a pileup under the basket early in the half. She tried to play but quickly left the game and reared back in pain when a trainer checked the knee. She got up and limped to the locker room.
Bruszewski is Notre Dame's second-leading rebounder, nicknamed "Bruiser" for her physical play under the basket. She missed most of the first half, returning with a brace on her knee in the closing minutes. She played sparingly and finished with four points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.
Coach Muffet McGraw said Bruszewski was questionable for the game against Tennessee.
"It would be huge in so many ways," McGraw said, referring to the possibility she won't be available. "She's our leader, the one that gets us ready for the game."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to the third NCAA Elite Eight (regional final) in school history, and first since its run to the 2001 NCAA national championship ... the Fighting Irish improve to 3-6 (.333) all-time in Sweet 16 (regional semifinal) games, with this marking Notre Dame's largest margin of victory ever in an NCAA Championship game at the regional semifinal round or later (previous was an 87-71 win over Alabama in the 1997 East Regional semifinals at Columbia, S.C.) ... Notre Dame rises to 17-2 (.895) all-time in NCAA Championship play (46 games) when holding its opponent to 60 points or fewer ... the Fighting Irish have scored 70 points or more in eight of their last 10 NCAA Championship games ... Notre Dame is 19-5 (.792) all-time when playing as the higher seed in the NCAA Championship ... the Fighting Irish are 30-16 (.652) all-time in the NCAA Championship ... Notre Dame is 17-4 (.810) all-time when playing in the city of Dayton ... the Fighting Irish rise to 3-2 in their abbreviated series with Oklahoma, with Saturday's margin easily the largest by either side in the series (the first four games had been decided by 10 points or fewer, two in overtime) ... Oklahoma's 53 points were the fewest allowed by Notre Dame in the series ... the No. 21/20 Sooners were the sixth Top 25 team Notre Dame has defeated this season (6-7 record), and the fourth Top 25 win by 20 points or more ... the Fighting Irish rise to 9-11 (.450) all-time against current Big 12 Conference teams, including a 7-10 (.412) record away from South Bend and a 5-2 (.714) record vs. the Big 12 in the NCAA Championship ... Notre Dame has defeated teams from 12 different conferences this season ... the Fighting Irish held their opponent to 20 points or fewer in the first half for the ninth time this season, and first since Feb. 26, when Cincinnati had 20 first-half points at Purcell Pavilion ... Oklahoma's 17 first-half points were the fewest Notre Dame has allowed in a single half of an NCAA Championship game since March 15, 2002 (11 in second half by New Mexico in Midwest Region first-round game at Knoxville, Tenn.), and fewest ever allowed in first half of a tournament game (previous was 18 by Saint Mary's-Calif. on March 13, 1999, in West Region first-round game at Baton Rouge, La.) ... Notre Dame's 24 assists were one off the school record for an NCAA Championship game, set twice before (most recently on March 21, 2010, in a Kansas City Region first-round win over Cleveland State at Purcell Pavilion) ... the Fighting Irish posted their 15th 20-assist game of the season ... Notre Dame's .857 assist percentage on its field goals (24 assists on 28 baskets) was its best ever in an NCAA tournament game (previous: .783, 18-of-23 against Purdue on March 15, 1996, in Midwest Region first-round game at Lubbock, Texas) ... Notre Dame set a program record for NCAA tournament games with nine three-point field goals, topping the old mark of eight set four times (most recently on March 30, 2001, in the NCAA Women's Final Four national semifinals against Connecticut in St. Louis, Mo.) ... Notre Dame's +23 rebounding margin (47-24) was the fourth-best by the Fighting Irish in an NCAA Championship game and best since March 23, 2008 (also +23, 49-26 in Oklahoma City Region first-round contest against SMU at West Lafayette, Ind.) ... Oklahoma's .091 three-point percentage (1-for-11) was the second-best defensive effort by Notre Dame on the three-point arc in an NCAA tournament game, bested only by an .080 (2-for-25) effort against Arizona on March 23, 2003, in an East Region first-round game at Manhattan, Kan. ... conversely, the Fighting Irish turned in their best three-point shooting day in the NCAA tournament since March 25, 2008, when they went 5-for-8 (.625) in an Oklahoma City Region second-round overtime win over Oklahoma at West Lafayette, Ind. ... senior guard Brittany Mallory not only canned a career-high six three-pointers, but also tied a Notre Dame program record for most triples in an NCAA Championship game, previously logged by Beth Morgan against Alabama (March 22, 1997, in East Regional semifinal at Columbia, S.C.) and tied by Sheila McMillen at Texas Tech (March 21, 1998, in Midwest Region second-round game) ... Mallory's six treys are the most by a Notre Dame player in ANY game since Nov. 29, 2008, when Kellie Watson hit six threes in a win over Michigan State at Purcell Pavilion ... Mallory's season-high 20 points made her the fifth different Notre Dame player to score 20 points in a game this year ... sophomore guard Skylar Diggins dished out a career-high 12 assists, the most ever recorded by a Fighting Irish player in the NCAA tournament (previous high was 11, set twice by Mollie Peirick in that 1997 East Regional semifinal vs. Alabama and the 1998 Midwest Region second-round win at Texas Tech) ... Diggins' 12 assists are the most by a Notre Dame player in ANY game since Jan. 2, 2000, when current Fighting Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey also had 12 assists in a 75-60 win over Marquette at Purcell Pavilion ... senior forward Devereaux Peters recorded her second consecutive double-double in this year's NCAA Championship (as well as her ninth of the season and 10th of her career), the first Fighting Irish player with multiple double-doubles in the NCAA tournament since 2004, when Jacqueline Batteast had double-doubles in all three of Notre Dame's tourney games (Missouri State, Middle Tennessee, Penn State) ... Peters' 13 rebounds tied her season high set on Jan. 2 against Southeast Missouri State at Purcell Pavilion ... Peters' 13 rebounds tied for the fourth-most caroms by a Notre Dame player in the NCAA Championship, and most since March 21, 2004, when Courtney LaVere grabbed 13 boards in an overtime win over Missouri State in an East Regional first-round game at Purcell Pavilion ... Notre Dame shot better than 45 percent from the field for the 27th time this season, while recording double-digit steals for the 25th time this year ... the Fighting Irish reach the 29-win mark for the second consecutive season ... Notre Dame is 6-1 (.857) all-time when sporting its white and green alternate home uniforms in the NCAA Championship.