by Mike Potter
CONSTANT CENTER/NORFOLK, Va. It’s Go Time for Duke in women’s basketball.
ACC champion Duke (33-2) is seeded No. 2 and the Big East champion Irish (34-1) — who will join the ACC for next season — No. 1.
Notre Dame has a national marquee player in senior point guard Skylar Diggins, who was named a first-team AP All-American earlier in the day. Duke’s Chelsea Gray, out for the season since a knee injury on Valentine’s Day, was named to the second team while Duke center Elizabeth Williams and Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride are on the third team.
The teams did square off early last season, with the Irish coming back to win 56-54 on Nov. 25, 2011, in the Bahamas.
Duke fights hard and gives the Irish a good scare, but it’s too much Diggins as Notre Dame advances 87-76.
The Blue Devils play exactly the first half they need to play to win. Diggins gets her second foul just 4:10 into the contest with the Irish up 8-4 and Duke slowly grabs the momentum.
Duke rolls off 12 straight points in one stretch — eight of them from Tricia Liston — to go up 26-17 on a Chloe Wells jumper with 5:16 left in the period.
The Blue Devils are up 37-31 at the break following a Wells 3-pointer with two seconds left.
Liston has 13 points at the half without missing any kind of shot while Diggins hits a trio of 3-pointers to score 11. Duke shoots 50 percent over the first period to 32.4 for the Irish and leads the rebound battle 23-16, with Notre Dame’s only bright spot its six turnovers to Duke’s 11.
But here comes the cliché — basketball is played in two halves. And the Irish come out of the gate quickly to win the second. A 17-5 run ends in a 3-pointer from McBride — who is coming off a shaky first half — to make it 50-42 with 13:16 left.
Duke is never again closer than five back. It goes to 75-59 on a McBride 3-pointer with 4:25 to go and 77-61 on a pair of Jewell Loyd free throws when Duke point guard Alexis Jones fouls out at 2:20.
The Blue Devils’ last gasp comes after they cut it to 82-73 with 40 seconds left and the Irish’s Ariel Braker misses a pair of free throws, but McBride grabs the long rebound and hits her two free throws to ice it.
Diggins finishes with 24 points, nine assists and five steals and is named the tournament MVP. McBride adds 18 points to make the all-tournament team along with Achonwa, who pulls down 13 rebounds. The freshman Loyd adds 17 points.
Liston finishes with 19 points and makes the all-tourney team, along with freshman teammate Jones who has nine points and five rebounds. Haley Peters finishes with 15 points and 10 rebounds for her 10th double-double of the season, while Richa Jackson chips in 12 points. Williams hits eight points to go over the 1,000-point barrier, while Allison Vernerey has six points and four rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench in the only senior’s final game as a Blue Devil.
The Irish shoot 46 percent for the game - 62.1 after halftime - to Duke’s 44.4. The rebounds finish at 40-40, but Duke commits 21 turnovers to Notre Dame’s 14.
They said it …
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw: “I thought it was a phenomenal second half. I felt we really came out of the locker room with a lot more energy and intensity. … (At halftime) we started with ‘We cannot play any worse.’ That’s as poorly as we’d played all year long and we were only down six, so we felt pretty good about it. I didn’t feel good about the energy; I told them that we hadn’t been out-worked all year long.”
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie: “It was a great basketball game, but a tough game. I’m really proud of our team and how they fought, but we’re all disappointed in a big way. We needed a little more fight, a little more of this and that. The thing that really bugged me was the 11 assists and nine turnovers. We had great spurts at times and we were fighting, but you have to fight for 40 minutes at this level. This one should stick with us for a long time.”
Diggins: “Coach lit a fire underneath us at the half. They were outworking us. They had 11 points off second-chance opportunities (and) they were beating us to all the 50-50 balls. We really wanted to come out and start the (second) half with really good defense. We felt it could not get any worse.”
Liston: “I thought our first half was pretty good. We held them to a low score, and were right on pace for our (defensive) goal. I thought we had great focus on the shooters and go-to players we wanted to stop. I wish we could have had the same focus and concentration in the second half.”
Peters: “Right now we’re obviously very disappointed. I think we just need to be able to be a team that focuses all 40 minutes, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and we went through a stretch in the second half where we didn’t get stops and it just hurt us. We need to really commit to that for an entire season and an entire game.”
What does it all mean?
That Notre Dame will try to go 4-0 against Connecticut, and will have to deal with the Blue Devils in the ACC without Diggins next season. With Louisville's win, there are two future ACC teams in the Final Four. And that Duke’s No. 1 recruiting class that is currently the junior group will get one more chance to play in a Final Four.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
McBride’s 3-pointer with 4:25 left to put the Irish up 75-59.
Duke: Lost 1.
Notre Dame: Won 30.
Notre Dame leads 6-1.
Notre Dame vs. Connecticut in New Orleans, Sunday, time TBA.