CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and No. 2 Notre Dame survived their toughest test of the season to remain unbeaten.
Natalie Achonwa scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds and the Fighting Irish survived a late challenge to beat Virginia 79-72 on Sunday.
“Welcome to the ACC,” McGraw quipped after her team’s first victory by single digits this year.
Notre Dame is one of two unbeaten teams left in the country, joining former Big East rival UConn.
The Cavaliers closed to within 71-69 with 3:49 remaining before the Irish held on for their 38th consecutive regular-season victory, their 27th consecutive regular-season road game and their 23rd consecutive regular-season league game.
Kayla McBride added 23 points and five assists for the Fighting Irish (15-0, 3-0 ACC), including a bizarre driving layup after Virginia closed to within two. On the play, she drove down the lane in traffic, flipped the ball up and it fell.
“I was just trying to get to the free throw line, trying to make something happen,” McBride said.
Jewell Loyd added 17 points for Notre Dame.
Faith Randolph led Virginia (8-8, 1-2) with a career-best 23 points and Sarah Imovbioh had 18 points and 12 rebounds. The Cavaliers were coming off a victory at Virginia Tech in which they rallied from 17 points down to win, but couldn’t quite repeat the feat despite getting so close and firing up the crowd of 4,451 at John Paul Jones Arena.
Randolph’s big day highlighted a problem for McGraw — her team’s susceptibility to athletic, driving players.
“Randolph played really well,” the coach, in her 32nd season, said. “We expected her to play well, we expected her to shoot well, but we did a poor job guarding her because she was really difficult for us to guard. ... We’ve got to get a better plan, I think, on how we’re going to guard people because what we’re doing now isn’t working.”
Notre Dame led 43-36 at halftime and seemed poised to blow the game open when it opened the second half on an 8-2 run to go ahead 51-38. Achonwa had five points and Loyd hit a 3-pointer in the burst, but after a timeout, Virginia got three consecutive baskets from Randolph to begin a stirring comeback.
“When they did go on a run, I called a timeout and the kids knew, ‘That’s their run,’” Virginia coach Joanne Boyle said, adding that she had warned them at halftime that the Irish would try to take control quickly in the second half.
The Irish rebuilt their lead to 61-51, but an 11-4 run by Virginia pulled them within three. Randolph had five points in the burst and fed Ataira Franklin for another basket to get the Cavs within 65-62.
Three times the Irish scored to stretch their lead to five, and each time Virginia responded, finally getting the margin down to 71-69 on Imovbioh’s free throw with 3:49 remaining. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Imovbioh missed her first two free throws on the trip before Franklin rebounded the second, and when Imovbioh was fouled again, she made one.
With its lead smaller than it had been since late in the first half, Notre Dame got a tough driving basket from McBride, rebounded a Virginia miss and got two free throws by Achonwa, and then followed a turnover by the Cavaliers with Achonwa’s inside basket, extending the lead to 77-69 with 1:14 left.