Tulyah Gaines and Erica Williamson defend California's Devanei Hampton in the second half. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Irish Take Down Cal 62-59 in NCAA Opening Round

March 18, 2007

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PITTSBURGH (AP) – Notre Dame had green uniforms, green fingernails and one of the greenest lineups in the NCAA women’s tournament. By the end of a tightly played game that tested the inexperienced Fighting Irish’s nerves and composure, they looked liked veterans.

Tulyah Gaines made two free throws with 16.5 seconds remaining after Notre Dame’s Charel Allen scored a key basket and set up another, and the Fighting Irish rallied for a 62-59 victory over California in the NCAA tournament Sunday.

The ninth-seeded Irish (20-11) relied on Allen’s 13 points and Melissa Lechlitner’s 12 to advance to a second-round game Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. (ET) in the Dallas Regional against top-seeded North Carolina (31-3), also in Pittsburgh.

The Irish reached the second round for the 11th time in 12 years despite having only two seniors – a lack of experience that led to them being picked to finish 11th in the Big East. Maybe it was fitting they painted their fingernails green, a tradition any time the Irish play on or near St. Patrick’s Day, and wore green uniforms for the first time since last year’s NCAA tournament.

“A lot of people didn’t think we’d make it to the NCAA tournament because we lost some leadership from last year, but we overcame that and played really hard,” senior Breona Gray said. “We’re glad we have another day to play.”

Allen, a former Pittsburgh area high school star playing before a contingent of hometown fans, had an uneven game. She missed 10 shots on 6-of-16 shooting, turned the ball over four times and did little offensively for a long stretch of the second half as Cal (23-9) rallied from a 36-25 deficit to take four separate leads. Almost all the Bears’ offense came from sophomore inside players Ashley Walker (20 points) and Devanei Hampton (13 points).

“The game was tough, very intense because we haven’t really played two post players like that,” Notre Dame freshman Erica Williamson said. “It was a struggle for our team.”

But after Walker missed two free throws, Crystal Erwin scored on a feed in the lane from Allen, and Allen then scored herself after Ashley Barlow’s steal to make it 56-51.

Williamson scored from the lane to up the Irish’s lead to seven points, but the Bears had one more comeback left in them. Lauren Greif hit a 3-pointer and Natasha Vital scored on a four-player fast break – Walker went down at midcourt with a knee injury on the play – to cut it to 58-56. Walker was not seriously hurt and returned after a timeout.

Lechlitner, one of the Irish’s four freshmen, gave the Bears another chance by missing the front end of a one-and-one with 31 seconds to go. But Hampton dribbled the ball out of bounds off her foot with 19 seconds remaining, and Gaines took advantage by making her two free throws.

Greif made three free throws after unwisely being fouled on a 3-point attempt with seven seconds remaining, but the Irish dribbled the clock down to a half-second remaining. Lechlitner then made two more free throws to seal it and end Notre Dame’s three-game losing streak.

The Irish played at the Petersen Events Center earlier this season – a 71-62 loss to Pitt on Jan. 31 – and they clearly looked more comfortable at the start in opening a 12-2 lead. The noon start also couldn’t have helped the Golden Bears, who looked to still be on Pacific time in their first game in two weeks.

“I was thinking there was so much excitement in the locker room, I was afraid we were too loose,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “We were almost giddy for getting to the tournament. This is the way this team’s been with the freshmen because everything’s new to them.”

What helped the Irish was the 6-foot-3 Hampton – the Pac-10 player of the year – getting into foul trouble and having to sit out 12 minutes in the first half. She drew her third foul with about 5 1/2 minutes remaining, shortly after returning.

“It was frustrating,” Hampton said. “Coach said we should just play, you know, physical. I don’t know.”

The 6-1 Walker, Cal’s other strong sophomore inside player, kept the Bears from getting too far down by going 10-of-10 from the foul line and scoring 12 of their 23 first-half points as the Irish led 32-23 at halftime.

“Were we scared? Were we intimidated? Were we tentative? I don’t know,” Cal coach Joanne Boyle said. “We put ourselves in a situation this year against a couple of teams and we’ve come from behind and we’ve been able to pull games out.”

California is 1-5 in NCAA play and hasn’t won since beating Kansas in 1993.

— ND —

POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame advances to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in the past 12 seasons … the Irish are 9-9 (.500) all-time when playing in the NCAA Tournament as a lower seed … Notre Dame improves to 14-1 (.933) in NCAA Tournament games when holding the opposition to 60 points or less … the Irish post their highest regulation point total in the NCAA Tournament since April 1, 2001, when they defeated Purdue, 68-66 in St. Louis to win their first national championship; Notre Dame scored exactly 61 points in its three previous NCAA Tournament games before just exceeding that vs. California … Notre Dame registers its 20th victory of the year, posting its 13th 20-win season in the past 14 years and 17th in the 20-year Muffet McGraw era … the Irish are 34-5 (.872) against first-time opponents in the past 12 seasons (1995-96 to present), including a 14-1 (.933) mark since 2000-01 and a 11-2 (.846) record in NCAA Tournament games (and an active 11-game win streak in NCAA play) … Notre Dame gains its first-ever win over a Pac-10 Conference opponent in the NCAA Tournament (now 1-2) and rises to 18-16 (.529) all-time against Pac-10 teams … the Irish wore their green road uniforms in Sunday’s NCAA opener vs. Cal, the first time all season they have sported the green threads; Notre Dame is 5-5 (.500) all-time when wearing the green in postseason play, winning an NCAA Tournament game in those colors for the first time since March 17, 2001 (98-49 vs. Alcorn State at the Joyce Center) … the Irish are 9-1 (.900) all-time in the city of Pittsburgh, including a 3-1 (.750) record at the Petersen Events Center … Notre Dame is 10-5 (.667) this season in games decided by 10 points or fewer, including a 5-2 (.714) mark in games decided by five points or fewer … the Irish registered at least 10 steals for the 19th time this season; they also now have 329 steals this season, which is fifth on the school’s single-season chart … Notre Dame is 3-0 this year when playing on the ESPN family of networks (Feb. 4 vs. West Virginia on ESPNU; Feb. 11 vs. DePaul on ESPN2) … the Irish attempted 18 three-point field goals, tying for their third-highest total ever in the NCAA Tournament (most since program-record 24 vs. Southwest Missouri State on March 21, 2004) … Cal’s Ashley Walker (10-12 FT) tied the Notre Dame opponent records for free throws made and attempted in an NCAA Tournament game, most recently set last year by Brooke Queenan of Boston College … freshman guard Ashley Barlow tied her career highs for rebounds (10; also vs. Bowling Green on Nov. 13) and assists (4; three other times, most recently vs. Georgetown on Feb. 21) … Charel Allen now has the third-highest single-season point total ever posted by a Notre Dame junior with 524 markers; she passed Jacqueline Batteast (512 in 2003-04) and Ruth Riley (518 in 1999-2000) in Sunday’s game vs. Cal … freshman guard Melissa Lechlitner notched her eighth double-digit scoring game of the season, with four of those coming in the past eight outings.