The earth didn’t move; Notre Dame won.
The second-ranked and first-seeded Fighting Irish defeated a plucky and at times inspired Iowa women’s basketball team 74-57 in an NCAA second-round game Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It was not necessarily vintage Notre Dame 2013, but it was a pretty impressive show. What’s impressive about the Irish is that if you saw them walking around the mall, you would not necessarily think, “That’s a scary basketball team.” Now, Miami, the team Iowa beat on Sunday, would definitely give that impression. The Hurricanes were big and had a center who was 6-foot-6 and built like a ’Canes football player.
But with the exception of 6-3 Canadian Olympian Natalie Achonwa, the Irish are almost normal-sized women. But there’s nothing average about any of them or the way they play basketball.
With the exception of the aforementioned center, the Irish are all quick and dart through the defense. They used a press at times against Iowa more to quicken the pace of the game than to produce turnovers, although it did that too at times.
They pass the ball early, often and with generosity. Their star point guard, Skylar Diggins didn’t lead them in scoring in either game here. Junior guard Kayla McBride killed the Hawkeyes. But it could have been freshman guard Jewell Loyd, who did in UT-Martin in the opener. Or Achonwa. It was her early, but Iowa cut that off by doubling down on the post and with a zone defense that forced the Irish to take outside shots when they were unable to generate a fast break.
But every time Iowa got close, and the Hawkeyes made several runs, McBride tossed in a 3-pointer. She had 24 of Notre Dame’s 46 first-half points, drilling 4-of-5 3-point shots.
Notre Dame isn’t deep and it’s not particularly big. Des Moines East graduate Markisha Wright has to spell Achonwa, and the 6-2 Wright is more like the forwards and guards than she is a center.
It is tempting to say the Irish are vulnerable because of their “limitations,” but then you look at what they’ve accomplished this season — three victories over UConn, a win at Tennessee, 27 victories in a row, third in the nation in free-throw shooting — and you have to think basketball is more complicated than just size and strength. And it is. But that’s also why the women’s game retains that feel while the men’s game sometimes devolves into a dunkfest.
Speed, finesse, understanding of angles and passing lanes, and harmony with your teammates still means a lot in this game. So does poise in hostile arenas and confidence in yourself and your teammates. The Irish do not lack for an inner conceit, that’s pretty obvious. They even “help” direct the officials during the game.
Notre Dame, which graduated three starters off last year’s team, two of whom were first-round WNBA draft choices, understands that it all has to fit together to make up a unit. And it helps to have a little chutzpah to go with it, if you can use that term with a Catholic university.
Leading by 12 at halftime the Irish unleashed their running game and put together an 11-4 run to start the second half. Diggins fed Ariel Braker for two baskets, Loyd hit a 3, McBride drove the baseline and Achonwa made a fastbreak basket. All parties present and accounted for.
The second half deteriorated after that in terms of aesthetics. Notre Dame kept its 20-something lead amid turnovers by both teams, missed shots and questionable foul calls. Achonwa was called for a technical for voicing her displeasure after having been fouled. It was rough in the post all night.
Iowa never stopped hustling, but the Hawkeyes had to play a nearly perfect offensive game to have a chance, and that was too much to ask or expect.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball