NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Thursday evening’s top-two showdown between the No. 1 University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team and No. 2 Louisville abounded with storylines.
All of them bore the appearance of demons the Irish were looking to exorcise.
There were Notre Dame’s two losses to the Cardinals last season, a pair of blemishes that marred an otherwise unforgettable championship season.
Then, there was the 1-6 record the Irish brought into No. 1-vs.-No. 2 contests, including an 0-2 mark as the No.1 team in that scenario (one loss which came earlier this season against rival UConn).
And, let’s face it, there’s no love lost between Notre Dame’s Karen and Kevin Keyes Head Coach Muffet McGraw and Louisville’s Jeff Walz.
None of that mattered Thursday — at least not for the ever-stoic McGraw and company — as the Irish (15-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) used a dominating second half to drop the Cardinals (14-1, 2-1 ACC) 82-68 in front of a sellout crowd at Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
“I don’t think we should put too much on it right now,” McGraw said. “It’s another game in January. It’s a big game, a huge win and it’s definitely going to be a stepping stone for us, but we’ve got so many big games coming up and we can’t really relax.”
Yet there was no denying the catharsis in the way the Irish turned a sloppy first half — marked by 11 turnovers to the Cardinals’ two — into a runaway.
It was evident in Arike Ogunbowale’s three-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer that gave Notre Dame a 57-47 lead and tested the venue’s decibel meter. It became even more so when another of her 3s fell with 40 seconds remaining. That one staked the Irish to a 73-66 margin and sparked a 14-2 run over the game’s final 1:23 after Louisville pulled within two a minute earlier.
To do it, the Irish took advantage of what they were given. With Louisville in foul trouble seemingly from the beginning, the Irish continued with an aggressive pace, shooting 56.3 percent in the second half after managing just 29 percent in the first. They got to the free throw line 39 times — offsetting their 18 turnovers — and finished +16 (48-32) in the rebounding column.
By the end of the night, three Cardinals — guards Arica Carter and Dana Evans and forward Bionca Dunham — had fouled out of the game.
“I was hoping (they would start to wear down),” McGraw said. “We wanted to post them up a little bit more and we didn’t really get a chance to do that. When Carter got (into foul trouble) — she’s a big key to their game and allows (Asia) Durr to take time off the point — and when Evans got into foul trouble they really didn’t have the backup point. That was a good thing for us. Defensively, they’re just such an aggressive man-to-man team and we wanted to attack them to make them foul us.”
Meanwhile, the Irish defense held the Cardinals without a field goal until the eighth minute of the third quarter.
And, of course, Ogunbowale did Ogunbowale things.
Her clutch second-half performance totaled up to 30 points (26 in the final two quarters) and six assists, and her final 12 points came in the last 2:14 of the game — when Louisville made a final surge to pull within two. She was 12-of-12 from the line, with seven makes coming in the final 27 seconds to put the game away.
“We had a lead later, so regardless if they were in foul trouble, we still wanted to be aggressive and go to the basket because we were getting easy buckets and layups,” Ogunbowale said. “We had to stay aggressive throughout the whole game.”
Jess Shepard’s 15 rebounds proved key as well, marking the sixth time this season she’s reached double-digit rebounds. Brianna Turner added 16 points, six boards and three blocks, and the pair combined to neutralize the Cardinal front court (only Dunham reached double figures with 10 points).
“Any game in the ACC is a big win,” Ogunbowale said. “There are a lot of great teams and a lot of upsets going on, so any game is a great win. We’re a great team and they’re a great team, so it was a fun, competitive game.”
“It’s great for the ACC to see,” McGraw added. “It’s such a strong conference. It’s great for kids to see when they turn on the TV and see one-versus-two and it’s Louisville-Notre Dame. And with the one-versus-two our crowd really gets into the game and I was glad that we got a chance to redeem ourselves after the last one-versus-two matchup.”