The inability to finish with a flourish resurfaced for Notre Dame in Sunday afternoon’s 78-73 loss at North Carolina to end a three-game Fighting Irish winning streak.
Leading 70-63 with 4:36 remaining, Notre Dame scored only one field goal the rest of the way (and none the final 2:54) while the Tar Heels closed on a 15-3 run. The Irish fell to 8-6 overall and 6-4 in the ACC, while North Carolina improved to 8-5, and 3-5 in the league.
“I thought they wanted it more,” Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey summarized of North Carolina’s rally. “I think we lost our composure…it makes us tight defensively. We didn’t get the stops we needed to defensively.
“If you’re not getting the stops defensively and not running the offense the way we know we can run it, it does kind of mess with your mental, you get kind of tight. This is a situation we’ve been in before multiple times.”
The season opener at Ohio U. was a harbinger when the Irish had a 77-70 lead before losing 86-85. The most infamous collapse was Jan. 7 at Boston College when the Eagles rallied to victory after trailing 60-48 with only 2:41 remaining in the contest.
During the recent three-game winning streak, the Irish held on for dear life at the end against Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia Tech after building huge leads (21 at Virginia Tech before winning 65-60), but this time too many trips to that well caught up once again.
An 11-0 Tar Heels spurt helped propel them to a 36-22 lead during the second quarter. The Irish then gradually chipped away, finishing with a 13-3 run to end the half and trail only 39-35 at the intermission.
Sparked by a superb third-quarter by junior guard Dara Mabrey — who led the team with 23 points and seven assists (while committing only one turnover) — in which she converted three three-pointers, Notre Dame went up by as much as six points and entered the fourth quarter with a 58-54 advantage.
Mabrey’s fifth three of the contest, followed by her assist to senior Mikki Vaughn underneath the bucket, gave Ivey’s squad its largest advantage at 70-63 prior to the Tar Heels’ rally.
Graduate student Stephanie Watts (25 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) and three-point specialist Petra Holesinska (24 points, with 6 of 11 beyond the arc) spearheaded the comeback, with two free throws by Holesinska at the 1:04 mark giving North Carolina the lead for good at 75-73.
Notre Dame had numerous chances at the end to tie it but could not finish. Freshman swingman Maddie Westbeld (10 points, nine rebounds, three assists) found an opening underneath, but a late pass to her resulted in no shot when North Carolina fouled with the Irish not yet in the bonus.
Next, sophomore guard Anaya Peoples had an open drive to her left on the in-bounds pass, but, perhaps while anticipating contact underneath, the lay-up was put up a little too strong against the backboard. Vaughn grabbed the carom on the weak side for what looked like could be an open look, but North Carolina, with still a foul to give, fouled her before she could shoot.
Finally, Westbeld after a reverse dribble drive to the basket also laid it up a little too hard against the backboard. Watts grabbed the rebound and sealed the verdict by converting two free throws with seven seconds left.
1. I.D. Checks
Even during the recent three-game winning streak, Notre Dame has had problems with identifying and defending the premier shooters — specifically on three-pointers.
It happened again at North Carolina. Coming into the game Holesinska was far and away the top three-point threat, converting 27 of 74 (36.4 percent), but too often had the open look while draining 6 of 11. Watts on the other hand was only 9 of 48 (18.8 percent), but found her range by drilling 4 of 9.
2. Bubble, Bubble… Toil & Trouble?
Per ESPN’s Bracketology, Notre Dame entered the game projected as a No. 10 seed, which means this defeat puts it squarely back on the bubble. The most difficult part of the schedule is now coming up with a three-game road swing, beginning next Sunday at No. 23 Syracuse, which was upset today by Clemson. Then it’s No. 1 Louisville on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 7) followed by No. 2 North Carolina State (Feb. 15).
Because of COVID-19, it’s become more like an NFL football schedule with one game every Sunday, or in the case at North Carolina State, a Monday night.
3. Pumping The Brakes, For Now, On Olivia Miles
The Top-10 prospect, highly coveted point guard and early enrollee Miles went through quarantine this past week and will undergo medical protocols to see if she can practice with the team in preparation for the game at Syracuse next Sunday. What the realistic expectations for her at this point are can’t be answered right now.
“Regardless of Olivia playing or not, I’m going to focus on the team that I have and we’re going to work to get better,” said Ivey. “I can’t answer what can be for Olivia right now.”
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