No. 2 Irish women hold off South Florida in Big East quarters
HARTFORD, Conn. — Natalie Achonwa’s stellar performance means Notre Dame will keep playing.
Achonwa had 20 points and 20 rebounds to lead the second-ranked Irish to a 75-66 win over South Florida on Sunday in the Big East women’s tournament quarterfinals.
“Achonwa’s numbers were record setting at Notre Dame — 20-20 is a phenomenal accomplishment,” coach Muffet McGraw said.
It was the first 20-20 in Big East tournament play since Rebecca Lobo did it in 1993.
But McGraw called Ariel Braker, who finished with eight points and 12 rebounds, the player of the game.
“She made so many big plays when she needed them,” McGraw said. “Totally above and beyond her call. She’s one of our best defenders and rebounders; she helped us on offense tonight.”
At this time of year, McGraw said, it’s really just about surviving and advancing, not style. Top-seeded Notre Dame earned its school record 24th straight victory.
Skylar Diggins, the Big East player of the year, added 15 points for the Irish, who will face No. 13 Louisville in the semifinals Monday night. She had a rough day, going 5 for 21 from the field.
She wasn’t concerned.
“Every game is an elimination game, so as long as we’re winning, it’s OK,” Diggins said.
Notre Dame and South Florida met in early January, and the Irish came away with a 75-71 overtime victory. Sunday’s game was more of the same.
Notre Dame (29-1) trailed 51-47 midway through the second half before scoring eight straight points, including four by Achonwa.
The Smith sisters — Andrell and Andrea — did all they could to keep the Bulls (21-10) in the game, but they couldn’t regain the lead.
Andrell finished with 27 points while Andrea had 18.
“I was happy that Andrell had such a good game,” South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said. “She had been struggling a little bit offensively. To ask her to guard an All-American for 40 minutes and play as well offensively — that was a great performance.”
Andrea Smith hit the first of two free throws with 5:08 left to pull within 61-57. But Notre Dame scored the next six points — including four by Kayla McBride, who had a quiet game otherwise — to put the game away.
With the Irish’s win, every top seed in the history of the Big East tournament has reached the semifinals. Notre Dame had to work hard to keep that streak alive.
Achonwa came up with almost every big play to help the Irish, whether grabbing an offensive rebound or making a key defensive play.
“The second half I worked before I got the ball,” Achonwa said. “A lot was catch and shoot — the guards did a great job of finding me.”
With the Bulls trailing 39-31 early in the second half, the Smith sisters rallied the team. They scored 15 of the next 17 points for the Bulls to give South Florida a 48-45 lead with 12:50 left after Andrea Smith hit a 3-pointer. Inga Orehkova’s 3-pointer made it 51-47.
“I think anytime you make shots you can beat anybody,” McGraw said. “They made 10 3’s. I think they are a great team. Great team speed. They push the ball well. They know their role and they can shoot.”