TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — After a first half that fell short of Notre Dame’s lofty standards, coach Muffet McGraw told her team to settle down.
“We talked about trying to be a little more in control, and gave them a little different offense to run — that we thought might help that,” McGraw said. “In transition, we kept going through the middle of the floor where all the traffic was. We were just careless.”
It was a sloppier victory than McGraw would have liked, but the top-seeded Fighting Irish did pull away convincingly in the second half for an 84-67 win over ninth-seeded Arizona State on Monday night. Natalie Achonwa had 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 12th time in the last 18 years.
The Irish (34-0) are now two wins from their fourth straight Final Four — and they’re heading back home. The regional semifinals and final will be played at Notre Dame.
“Our fans, family and friends do so much for us,” Achonwa said. “To be able to go back and play in front of them, I know as a senior it means a lot to me.”
Notre Dame will face the winner of Monday’s game between fourth-seeded Purdue and fifth-seeded Oklahoma State.
The Irish have won their last 15 games by double digits, although the Sun Devils (23-10) kept this one close until about midway through the second half. Deja Mann scored 16 points for Arizona State.
Notre Dame led 32-26 at halftime before scoring the first six points of the second. Led by the 6-foot-3 Achonwa, the Irish outscored Arizona State 46-34 in the paint.
Kayla McBride had 22 points and nine assists for Notre Dame.
The Sun Devils committed two early shot clock violations and fell behind 8-2, but Arizona State was able to avoid an early blowout. A 3-pointer by Mann started an 8-0 run that gave the Sun Devils a 15-12 lead and forced Notre Dame to take a timeout.
“We really tried to stick to our game plan and just play them aggressively,” said Arizona State’s Adrianne Thomas, who scored 14 points. “I feel like not a lot of other teams have really pressured them as much as we have.”
Arizona State beat Vanderbilt in the first round despite foul trouble and turnovers, and the Sun Devils put Notre Dame on the line a lot as well. They also committed 14 turnovers in the first half, but they forced 12 by the Irish to keep the game competitive.
Notre Dame’s six-point lead at halftime equaled its largest of the game to that point.
In the second half, Notre Dame shot 53 percent from the field to leave Arizona State behind. The Irish were whistled for seven fouls in the first 4:02 after halftime, putting the Sun Devils in the bonus early, but Arizona State still couldn’t keep up.
“With a team that is so aggressive and pressuring so much, the backdoor is what we were looking for,” Achonwa said. “We worked on it in practice, and Kayla and the rest of the guards did a great job of finding me.”
Jewell Loyd’s layup in transition made it 55-39, and when McBride added a 3-pointer from the left wing, it was 73-48.
In other words, another Notre Dame rout.
Loyd finished with 19 points and seven rebounds. Achonwa shot 8 of 10 from the field and fell a point short of her career high, set Jan. 12 at Virginia.
Both teams finished with 22 turnovers, but the Irish had 19 assists to Arizona State’s five. Notre Dame made 25 of 32 free throws.
The deep, balanced Sun Devils had 11 players play at least six minutes but couldn’t wear down the Irish.
“We just didn’t execute as well as we needed to, and then when we did, unfortunately we missed some shots,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “Lots to build on in the offseason in terms of just little things that we didn’t do on both ends of the floor — because we want to be where Notre Dame is.”
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