A night after Notre Dame's football team went down hard 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 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 dominated 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 South Florida 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.
South Florida 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 team despite shooting 33.3 percent (25 of 75) for the game. The Fighting Irish were only slightly better, shooting 36.8 percent while making the same number of field goal 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."
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