From the opening tip, the Blue Devils looked out of sync.
Notre Dame senior forward Natalie Achonwa tipped the ball to freshman point guard Lindsay Allen, who drove in for an uncontested layup to give the Fighting Irish an early 2-0 lead. It was one they would never relinquish.
No. 3 Duke was on its heels and playing catch-up the rest of the way, ultimately falling 88-67 to the second-ranked Fighting Irish. The Blue Devils had their opportunities to make it a game late and twice cut Notre Dame’s lead down to five points early in the second half, but the Fighting Irish responded both times to crush Duke’s comeback hopes. The Blue Devils never got closer.
“It was getting the stops we needed,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We never got the stops we needed, ever.”
In a matchup advertised as a battle between the nation’s two best shooting teams, Duke struggled out of the gate, connecting on just two of its first 10 attempts. The Fighting Irish made a habit of turning Blue Devil misses into easy fast break points and connected on seven of their first 10 shots.
Senior guard Kayla McBride led Notre Dame’s fast break attack—finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists—and knocked down her first five shots of the contest between the ACC’s top two teams.
“It’s just fun,” McBride said. “We ended up hitting shots at the beginning of the game and it was a great environment. I [was just] trying to take advantage of my opportunity.”
Another key for the Fighting Irish was that Achonwa forced Duke’s All-American center Elizabeth Williams to miss two early shots in the paint. Just as she did when the teams clashed in the Elite Eight last season, Achonwa seemed to frustrate Williams with her activity on both ends of the court and baited Duke’s post presence into two early fouls.
Williams did not respond well to Achonwa’s aggressiveness. The junior did not block a shot in the contest for the first time in her career and the Fighting Irish capitalized, gashing the Duke defense for 40 points in the paint.
“I think Elizabeth can play with anybody when she sets her mind to it,” McCallie said. “I think we’re long enough into the season where we should be smart enough not to be picking up fouls like that. I was very disappointed.”
Once the Fighting Irish had taken Williams out of the contest and established their supremacy in transition, the game became Notre Dame dictating pace and Duke hanging on for dear life. The Blue Devils managed to keep it close because of 16 offensive rebounds and 16 steals—10 of which came from sophomore guard Alexis Jones—but were eventually crushed by Notre Dame’s big runs.
The first came with 7:07 remaining in the first half and Duke trailing 26-23. Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd—the team’s leading scorer—and Allen combined to knock down three consecutive 3-pointers because of Duke’s inability to keep the Fighting Irish out of transition.
Loyd then stole an errant Williams pass and passed ahead to Allen to give Notre Dame a commanding 37-23 lead. The narrative of Notre Dame dominating in transition following Duke’s errors also defined the second half.
“We played much better team defense,” McBride said. “They were missing shots, we were getting rebounds, and that’s what led to the transition game.”
After Duke clawed its way to within five points with 15:27 left in the game, the Fighting Irish put their ball movement on display with a crushing 13-2 run. The Blue Devils again failed to find Notre Dame’s weapons in transition, allowing Loyd and Allen to wreak havoc by getting into the paint.
The 13-2 run was replicated with Duke down 67-55 with 7:42 left as Loyd again punished the Blue Devils for their sloppy defense, notching five points and two rebounds as well as two steals during the game-clinching spurt. The Fighting Irish finished with 27 fast break points. More importantly, Notre Dame finished with three more points off turnovers than Duke even though the Blue Devils gathered six more turnovers.
“You’ve got to think about your defense more than you think about your offense,” McCallie said. “We’ve got a lot of people thinking offense…. We’ve got to learn to value defense more.”
Although Notre Dame’s 61.8-percent shooting effort was a product of great offense and poor defense, it was also the result of the Fighting Irish feasting on an undermanned Duke team’s poor offensive execution.
The Blue Devils better be sure to convert more of their chances as their schedule toughens—they have seen the result when they don’t.
“You have to give credit to great defense, and you have to say that offensively, we didn’t move the ball as well, find each other, or execute,” McCallie said.