SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw laughed when she was asked if the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish finally “got the number” of fifth-ranked Tennessee, beating the Lady Vols for a fifth straight time.
“Well, we had an 0-20 start, so we’re kind of coming out of a hole there,” McGraw said. “We had nothing to lose. I think we’ve just got momentum going and we feel like we have a lot of confidence going into the game.”
The momentum has come from Notre Dame’s star players. Skylar Diggins started to turn the series around by averaging 28 points in three straight wins over Tennessee and then last season Kayla McBride had 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a win. On Monday night it was Jewell Loyd hitting 13-of-23 shots for 34 points with five rebounds and four assists in an 88-77 victory.
“Jewell was Jewell. She was phenomenal today,” McGraw said. “She’s so fun to watch and so hard to guard.”
Loyd drove through the lane, scored on backdoor passes and hit baskets even when Tennessee defended her well, spinning inside and hitting a shot over a crowd inside.
“One of the best players that we’ve played against and seen,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We tried to switch on her, we face-guarded her, but she was in a zone. We just didn’t have an answer for her.”
Loyd credited teammates.
“They look for me. They encourage me. I give all the credit to them,” Loyd said. “When you have people encouraging you, it makes it a lot easier.”
Warlick said the Lady Vols just didn’t do enough to win and missed too many shots inside.
“We had opportunities, we just didn’t finish plays,” she said.
The Lady Vols (15-3) hadn’t allowed any opponents to shoot better than 54 percent all season, but the Irish (17-2) shot 58 percent and the 88 points were 16 points more than Tennessee had allowed all season.
“It’s tough to beat a team when they’re getting good looks and they’re finishing,” Warlick said.
Tennessee cut the lead to 42-41 early in the second half on a layup by Isabelle Harrison and cut it again to 46-44 on a rebound basket by Bashaara Graves, who led Tennessee with 22 points. The Irish responded with a 6-0 spurt on a rebound by Allen, a basket inside by Briana Turner and a backdoor layup by Loyd to extend the lead to eight points.
When Ariel Massengale hit a 3-pointer, Loyd responded with a three-point play. The Irish eventually used a 9-3 run, highlighted by a 3-pointer by Loyd and an alley-oop layup by Brianna Turner on a pass from Allen to open a 66-52 lead.
Tennessee narrowed the lead 80-74 on a layup by Bashaara Graves with 56 seconds left, but couldn’t get any closer.
The Lady Vols outrebounded the Irish 18-13 in the first half, but the Irish outrebounded them 23-16 in the second half and finished with a 36-34 edge on the boards. Taya Reimer led the Irish with 10 rebounds and added nine points. Turner scored 13 as the Irish scored the most points the Lady Vols have allowed this season.
Cierra Burdick added 15 for Tennessee while Isabelle Harrison had 12 and Massengale 11 as the Lady Vols shot 43 percent.
Tennessee: Tennessee’s five straight losses to Notre Dame have all been by 10 points or more. …. The Volunteers had held opponents to 53 points or fewer in 13 of 17 games. … After playing at Tennessee two straight seasons, the Lady Vols are scheduled to play in South Bend again next year.
Notre Dame: The victory was Muffet McGraw’s 900th game as Notre Dame’s coach. Her record is 680-220, a winning percentage of 75.6. … Notre Dame players wore “We Back Pat” T-shirts before the game in support of the Pat Summitt Foundation, an initiative focused on recognizing the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Summitt coached Tennessee for 38 seasons before stepping down in April 2012 one year after announcing she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Tennessee players wore similar shirts.
Warlick gave much of the credit of Tennessee’s defensive struggles to Notre Dame’s offense, but said the Lady Volunteers defense wasn’t aggressive enough. “Our games where we’ve held people we’ve attacked and we’ve dictated. I thought the majority of the time we didn’t dictate anyone one defense.”
Tennessee: Hosts LSU on Thursday.
Notre Dame: Hosts Georgia Tech on Thursday.
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