For the second consecutive season, Notre Dame senior guard/co-captain Skylar Diggins has been selected as one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, awarded annually to the national player of the year.

#2 Notre Dame Downs USF, 75-66 To Reach BIG EAST Semifinal

March 10, 2013

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – 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.”

— ND —

POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame extends its winning streak to a school-record 24 games, topping the previous mark of 23 consecutive victories set from Nov. 17, 2000-Feb. 14, 2001 … the Fighting Irish improve to 22-17 (.564) all-time in the BIG EAST Championship, including an 11-6 (.647) mark in the quarterfinal round and a 16-7 (.696) record as the higher seed … of Notre Dame’s 39 career BIG EAST tournament games, more than half (22) have been decided by 11 points or fewer, with the Fighting Irish going 10-12 (.455) in those games … Notre Dame moves to 10-2 all-time against South Florida, including a current seven-game winning streak (and victories in both BIG EAST Championship matchups, having previously won 73-66 in the 2006 first round) … of the nine games between Notre Dame and USF since the Bulls joined the BIG EAST in 2005-06, six have been decided by single digits, including three that have gone to overtime … the Fighting Irish are 28-5 (.848) all-time against Florida schools, including a 17-2 (.895) mark against the Sunshine State away from home; Notre Dame also has won its last nine games against Florida schools … the Fighting Irish improve to 11-13 (.458) all-time at the XL Center (formerly the Hartford Civic Center), including a 10-5 (.667) record against teams other than Connecticut (which uses the facility as one of its home courts during the season) … Notre Dame is 18-0 this season and 70-4 (.946) in the past four seasons when it has at least four double-figure scorers, as well as an active 40-game winning streak in such games … junior forward Natalie Achonwa tied a school record with her 16th double-double of the season, collecting 20 points and a career-high 20 rebounds — Katryna Gaither had 16 double-doubles in 1996-97 (doing so in 38 games) … Achonwa is the first Notre Dame player with 20 points/20 rebounds in the same game since Jan. 20, 1988, when Heidi Bunek had 25 points and 20 rebounds in an 80-77 loss at DePaul … Achonwa is the first player from any school with a 20/20 game in the BIG EAST Championship since March 6, 1993, when Connecticut’s Rebecca Lobo had 23 points and a tournament-record 24 rebounds in a win over Seton Hall at Alumni Hall in Providence, R.I. … Achonwa is the first Fighting Irish player with a 20-rebound game since Bunek’s performance at DePaul in 1988 … for the second consecutive game, junior forward Ariel Braker set a new career rebounding high with 12 boards, topping her previous best of 10 rebounds last Monday night in a triple-overtime win over Connecticut at Purcell Pavilion … with Sunday’s win, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw picks up her 708th career victory, tying her for 12th on the NCAA Division I all-time coaching wins list with the legendary late skipper, Sue Gunter, who amassed 708 victories from 1969-2004 at Middle Tennessee, Stephen F. Austin and (most notably) LSU.