Notre Dame forward Ariel Braker

No. 2 Irish Hold Off South Florida, 75-71

Jan. 8, 2013

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – A night after Notre Dame’s football fell in Florida, the Fighting Irish women’s basketball team found a way to protect its lofty ranking.

Hardly resembling the team that handed then-No. 1 Connecticut its first loss of the season over the weekend, Skylar Diggins and Co. had to work overtime to hold off the University of South Florida 75-71 Tuesday night in a game coach Muffet McGraw said demonstrated her team is still a work in progress.

“I’d like to compare where we are now to where we were on Saturday. We’re a long way away,” McGraw said, alluding to a 73-72 win that vaulted the Fighting Irish (13-1, 2-0) from No. 5 to second in the latest Associated Press poll.

“Last year, we had a veteran team. We came out every game, I knew what we were going to do. We were going to be ready every game, and we were never going to take anyone lightly, and not let the thrill of a big game get to us,” McGraw added. “This team’s still young, so we’re still not where we need to be, I think, maturity-wise. And really, even with the veterans, I’m not sure that they came out ready. Hopefully, it was a really good learning lesson for us.”

Less than 24 hours after watching from their hotel as the school’s football team was defeated by Alabama in the BCS championship game, the Fighting Irish came out flat against an opponent determined to make a splash nationally.

Diggins scored four of her 19 points in overtime, Natalie Achonwa had 20 points and Jewell Loyd finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Fighting Irish, who trailed by six midway through the second half. Kayla McBride was limited to 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting, but keyed a surge that helped Notre Dame take its first lead since early in the game.

“I thought South Florida was fantastic. They did everything they needed to do. They scored and they ran on us. … They should be ranked in the Top 25, because they’re a very, very good basketball team,” McGraw said.

Andrea Smith tied a career high with 33 points and 11 rebounds for USF (11-3, 0-1), including her team’s last nine points of regulation and first four of overtime. Smith’s twin sister, Andrell, had 15 points before fouling out less than a minute into the extra session, and Inga Orekhova added 13.

“I definitely think we were on a high from UConn, but it shouldn’t be a factor,” Achonwa said. “We were talking about it earlier. In the BIG EAST, anybody can beat anybody. We need to come with the same mentality to every game, and we didn’t do that today.”

McBride scored a career-high 21 points and Diggins had 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals in Notre Dame’s 73-72 victory at Connecticut, but both Fighting Irish stars got off to slow starts against a USF team that’s off to its second-best start in 13 seasons under coach Jose Fernandez.

Diggins missed her first five shots before scoring 11 in the final nine minutes of the opening half. McBride, meanwhile, missed the only two shots she attempted while sitting out much of the first half with two fouls.

USF led 35-32 at the break despite shooting 37.8 percent and pushed Notre Dame to overtime for the third time in the last nine meetings between the teams despite shooting 33.3 percent (25 of 75) for the game. The Fighting Irish were only slightly better, shooting 36.8 percent and making the same number of field goals while taking seven fewer shots.

McBride made a long 3-pointer and added a three-point play during a 13-2 run Notre Dame put together to turn a 46-42 deficit into their biggest lead of the night, 55-48. But just when it appeared that the Fighting Irish were taking over the game, Andrea Smith found a way to keep USF close.

While Notre Dame was going scoreless from the field over the last six minutes of regulation, the 5-foot-8 senior made a pair of free throws, a 3-pointer and a contested 15-foot jumper to make it 61-61 with 2:02 remaining. After Loyd made two free throws to put the Fighting Irish in front again, Smith answered with another jumper to send it into overtime at 63-all.

“She was feeling it and we went to her,” Fernandez said. “She wants to take shots. She wants the ball in her hands.”

Diggins, who missed the final shot of regulation, put Notre Dame ahead for good with a basket a little more than a minute into overtime. She sank free throws for a 74-69 lead with 23.4 seconds left in the extra period, and Michaela ensured the Fighting Irish would hold on for their eighth straight victory by making one of two free throws.

Andrea Smith was 13 of 37 from the field and made all six of her free throws. Andrell Smith was 4 of 9 from the field and 6 for 6 from the foul line.

“It’s tough going into the locker room, especially with eight seniors, we’ve got a lot of guys hurting,” Fernandez said. “I’m sure around the country there weren’t a lot of people that thought that we were even going stay within 15, 20 points with what Notre Dame did to Connecticut, and what Notre Dame has done to opponents this season. But, that’s why you play the game.”

— ND —

POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame is off to a 2-0 start in BIG EAST Conference play for the fifth consecutive season and 12th time since joining the league in 1995-96 … Notre Dame also is 13-1 for the fourth time in five years and sixth time in school history (2000-01; 2004-05; 2008-09; 2009-10; 2011-12; 2012-13) … the Fighting Irish were playing their first overtime game since April 1, 2012, when they defeated Connecticut, 83-75, in the NCAA Women’s Final Four national semifinals at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo. … Notre Dame has won its last three overtime games and is 18-16 (.529) all-time when playing an extra five minutes (or more), including a 15-12 (.556) record in the Muffet McGraw era (1987-88 to present) … Tuesday’s win was the first overtime victory on the road for the Fighting Irish since Dec. 5, 2007, when they earned an 86-84 win at Bowling Green on Charel Allen’s jumper with one second left in OT … Notre Dame had 12 blocked shots, its highest total since Dec. 2, 2004, when it also had 12 blocks in an 82-73 overtime loss at home to Michigan State … it was the first time the Fighting Irish posted double-digit swats in a game since Feb. 16, 2010, when it had 10 blocks at St. John’s … senior guard Skylar Diggins had a career-high five blocks, the first Notre Dame player with five blocks in a game since March 20, 2012, when Devereaux Peters piled up seven blocks against California in the second round of the NCAA Championship at Purcell Pavilion … junior forward Ariel Braker tied her career high with three blocks, a mark she’s set three times previously (most recently on Dec. 8 in a win over Utah State at Purcell Pavilion) … USF’s Andrea Smith tried a Notre Dame opponent-record 37 shots on Tuesday, exceeding the old mark of 30 field goal attempts that was set twice before (most recently on April 3, 2011, by Connecticut’s Maya Moore in the NCAA Women’s Final Four national semifinals in Indianapolis) … Smith’s 33 points also are the most by a Fighting Irish opponent since Moore had 36 points in that 2011 Final Four game … Notre Dame improves to 9-2 all-time against USF, although seven of the past nine games in the series have been decided by 12 points or fewer, with three going to overtime (the Fighting Irish winning two of the OT games) … Notre Dame topped the 70-point mark for the 10th time in 11 series games against the Bulls, while USF hit that total for the third time (first since an 86-79 Notre Dame win on Feb. 17, 2009, in Tampa) … the Fighting Irish have won eight consecutive games against Florida schools and are 27-5 all-time against the Sunshine State … Notre Dame is 4-1 in five career visits to USF’s Sun Dome, and 17-3 when playing in the state of Florida, regardless of the opponent … the Fighting Irish had at least four double-figure scorers for the 11th time this season (11-0 record) and are 63-4 in the past four seasons when they have at least four players reach double digits, including an active 33-game winning streak … junior forward Natalie Achonwa posted her team-high fourth 20-point game of the season (and fifth of her career) … freshman guard Jewell Loyd earned her first career double-double with 18 points and a career-high 13 rebounds, becoming the fourth different Notre Dame player to register a double-double this season (and those four players with double-doubles — Loyd, Achonwa, Diggins and sophomore forward Markisha Wright — represent all four classes on the Fighting Irish roster) … Diggins logged her second consecutive “5-5-5” game (at least 5 in three of the five major statistical categories), her team-high fourth of the season and 33rd of her career … Diggins’ 7-for-7 performance at the free throw line was the best by a Fighting Irish player this season … Diggins’ one steal moved her into sole possession of second place on Notre Dame’s career steals list with 308, passing former Fighting Irish assistant coach/current Penn State head coach Coquese Washington (307 from 1989-93) … Diggins went over the 600-assist mark for her career on Tuesday night, now with 603 helpers, which ranks fourth all-time at Notre Dame and 48 behind Mollie Peirick (1994-97) for third place.