KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wanted to see how her undefeated team would respond to a test.
She got just the answer she wanted.
Kayla McBride scored 22 points to lead five players in double figures Monday as the second-ranked Fighting Irish erased an early 12-point deficit in an 86-70 victory over No. 11 Tennessee. Before Monday, Notre Dame (17-0) hadn’t trailed by more than seven points all season.
“We’re veterans,” McGraw said. “I thought we’re going to learn a good lesson, win or lose. It’s going to help us down the road, prepare us for the ACC, (playing in) a great crowd, a hostile environment. We hadn’t really seen anything quite this big this year. I thought it was just a great opportunity for us to see where we are.”
Since losing the first 20 games in this series, Notre Dame has beaten Tennessee four straight times by an average margin of 17 points. Notre Dame continued its recent mastery of Tennessee by outscoring the Lady Vols 45-24 in the second half.
After getting off to a sizzling start, Tennessee shot 8 of 32 and committed 12 turnovers in the second half. Tennessee (14-4) has led at halftime in each of its last three losses.
“It feels like this team is very sensitive,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We want it so much that it’s almost detrimental to us. We want it so badly. I would love to see how we’d play when everybody’s clicking on all cylinders. It would really be a lot of fun, but that’s up to me, to put them in positions and to get them ready for the next game.”
Michaela Mabrey and Natalie Achonwa each scored 15 points for Notre Dame, which hit 10 of 20 3-pointers. Madison Cable had 12 points and Jewell Loyd added 11. Mabrey and Cable helped Notre Dame’s bench outscore Tennessee’s reserves 36-16.
Meighan Simmons scored 23 points and shot 10 of 14 for Tennessee (14-4). Isabelle Harrison had 13 points and 16 rebounds. Ariel Massengale had 14 points, all in the first nine minutes.
Notre Dame entered the night leading the nation in field-goal percentage (.517), 3-point percentage (.436) and assists per game (22.4) while racing to the second-fastest start in school history, behind the 2000-01 national championship team that opened 23-0. Tennessee, on the other hand, had dropped three of its last seven games and was struggling to find its footing.
Yet it was Tennessee that looked like the team on a roll in the early going.
“I thought at halftime we were lucky to be down five,” McGraw said.
Tennessee grabbed a 42-30 lead by beating the hot-shooting Irish at their own game. Tennessee shot 55.9 percent (19 of 34) overall and went 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first half against a Notre Dame team that hadn’t allowed any opponent to make more than 44.9 percent of its shots all season.
Notre Dame committed three turnovers in the first 90 seconds of the game and had to adjust to playing without Loyd, who picked up two fouls in the first 5 ½ minutes of the game and sat out the rest of the first half. Loyd entered the night averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game.
But the Irish never panicked.
“We’ve been through so much — three (straight) Final Fours,” said McBride, who had seven assists to go along with her 22 points. “We’ve been in these types of environments with NCAA tournament games. We just had to calm everybody down and execute our game plan.”
Sure enough, Notre Dame regained the momentum once Tennessee cooled off.
After making 19 of its first 28 shots, Tennessee missed 17 of its next 18 attempts to allow Notre Dame to claw back into the game. Tennessee missed its last six shots of the first half and started the second half by shooting 1 of 12.
Notre Dame pulled ahead 49-48 when Taya Reimer capped a 14-2 run that started late in the first half by converting a three-point play with 15:27 remaining. After Tennessee briefly regained the lead, Notre Dame sank a trio of 3-pointers on a 9-0 spurt that gave the Irish a 58-51 advantage.
Simmons sank a 3-pointer that cut Notre Dame’s advantage to 60-56 with 10:09 remaining, but the Irish scored the next 13 points to put the game away.
“We’re going to be all right,” Massengale said. “We’ve just got to find out what it’s going to take for this team to play 40 minutes of basketball. In the first half, we seriously played the best basketball we’ve played all season. We’ve got to be able to sustain that for 40 minutes.”
No. 2 NOTRE DAME 86, No. 11 TENNESSEE 70
NOTRE DAME (17-0)
Achonwa 7-11 1-4 15, Allen 0-4 0-0 0, McBride 8-16 3-5 22, Loyd 5-10 0-0 11, Braker 1-4 0-0 2, Reimer 4-6 1-1 9, Cable 4-7 1-2 12, Mabrey 5-10 2-2 15. Totals 34-68 8-14 86.
Jones 0-2 0-0 0, Massengale 5-15 1-2 14, Simmons 10-14 0-0 23, Graves 2-6 0-0 4, Harrison 4-11 5-7 13, Reynolds 0-2 0-0 0, Burdick 2-8 1-3 5, Carter 1-3 2-4 4, Russell 3-5 1-3 7. Totals 27-66 10-19 70.
Halftime—Tennessee 46-41. 3-Point Goals—Notre Dame 10-20 (Cable 3-4, McBride 3-6, Mabrey 3-7, Loyd 1-2, Allen 0-1), Tennessee 6-9 (Massengale 3-3, Simmons 3-4, Reynolds 0-1, Carter 0-1). Fouled Out—Reimer. Rebounds—Notre Dame 37 (Achonwa, McBride 7), Tennessee 46 (Harrison 16). Assists—Notre Dame 23 (McBride 7), Tennessee 15 (Massengale 6). Total Fouls—Notre Dame 19, Tennessee 13. A—13,346.