Score: No. 1 Notre Dame 75, No. 8 South Florida 66
Stars: Notre Dame: Natalie Achonwa 20 Pts, 20 Reb. Skylar Diggins 15 Pts, 4 Reb, 5 Ast, 3 Stl. South Florida: Andrell Smith 27 Pts, 4 Reb, 3 Ast, 3 Stl. Andrea Smith 18 Pts, 5 Reb, 2 Ast.
Story: ”It’s survive and advance.” That is how Muffet McGraw described the mentality a team needs to take when they enter postseason play.
If nothing else, it is the mentality Notre Dame needed to think a team needs, after the Irish survived No. 8 South Florida in the Quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.
Sunday’s game was not all that different from the first matchup between the two schools on Jan. 8, when Notre Dame survived in overtime 75-71 in Tampa.
The game was close from the onset, as neither team was able to get more than four points ahead of the other for the first 10 minutes of the game, when South Florida jumped out to a six point lead. That margin came during a stretch where the Bulls maintained the lead for seven minutes.
Notre Dame took the lead back through a Skylar Diggins layup, and the Irish would not give up the lead for the remainder of the half. They led by as many as 12 during that stretch, but the Bulls were able to cut the lead to six with 10 seconds left on a three-pointer by Andrell Smith off of a steal by Inga Orekhova.
Out of the break, South Florida did everything it could to get back into the game, cutting the lead to two within four minutes. A Courtney Williams’ jumper gave them a 45-43 lead six and a half minutes into the half, and they would maintain the lead for only three minutes before Natalie Achonwa tied it on a put-back.
South Florida would take the lead back again with over 12 minutes to play, but Notre Dame was able to reclaim control before the under-eight minute media timeout. The Bulls would not get the lead back, and Notre dame was able to pull away, claiming the nine point win and a spot in the Semifinals.
Achonwa’s physical presence inside was too much for South Florida to deal with. The junior scored 20 points and pulled down 20 rebounds. Without Achonwa’s performance, Notre Dame may have been left shocked by a feisty South Florida team.
“[Achonwa's] numbers were record setting at Notre Dame,” McGraw said. “20 and 20 is a phenomenal accomplishment.”
“Natalie is a great player, like coach said,” Diggins said after the game. “We were trying to get the ball inside to her. She was great at moving without the ball and she knows her spots and chooses them well.”
A big reason as to why South Florida was able to stay in the game the way they did was the crowd. Playing in Hartford, the crowd was very pro-UConn, and wanted nothing more than to see their biggest rival fall victim to an early upset. South Florida fed off of the energy.
“It was momentum,” senior guard Andrell Smith said. “We felt good just to have people there cheering for us because it’s hard to have Tampa fans come so far up here. It felt good to have people behind our back. We knew why they were cheering for us, but we weren’t going to question it. We loved it and that was the good thing about it and that was okay for us.”
Notre Dame will face No. 4 Louisville in the Semifinals tomorrow night.