GREENSBORO – Duke’s first two cracks at unbeaten Notre Dame this season resulted in lopsided margins of victory for the No. 2 Irish.
Sunday night’s final score in the ACC Tournament championship game at Greensboro Coliseum, a 69-53 decision for the Irish, appears on the surface to be a repeat.
But a deeper look at the game showed how hard the Blue Devils pushed the Irish (32-0), who joins No. 1 Connecticut (33-0) as the nation’s two remaining unbeaten Division I women’s basketball teams.
Having lost the two regular-season ACC games against Notre Dame by combined margin of 32 points, Duke went to the halftime locker room tied 28-all with the powerful Irish on Sunday night.
Baskets by Richa Jackson and Haley Peters on Duke’s first two possessions of the second half staked Duke to a 32-28 lead with 19:10 to play.
But that, unfortunately for the Blue Devils (27-6), was the end of their fun.
Notre Dame unleashed a 21-4 run to build a 49-36 lead and permanently take control of the game.
“I was really pleased with the second half,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought we came out of the locker room and had kind of a renewed energy. I thought we played our game. I thought we played a little bit harder.”
Duke saw its upset hopes disintegrate with a series of poor possessions during that crucial six-minute stretch of the second half.
While Notre Dame was scoring 12 consecutive points, Duke turned the ball over four times. On three of those possessions, the Blue Devils didn’t even get a shot off.
“We just have to own up to some things,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “The turnovers cannot happen. We have to slow down and stop trying to go at a certain speed. I was disappointed in us in the second half. The second half turnovers were horrific.”
Notre Dame turned Duke’s empty possessions into points behind its terrific backcourt duo of Jewell Lloyd and Kayla McBride.
Lloyd, named the tournament most valuable player, led the Irish with 26 points in the final. McBride, who joined Lloyd on the all-tournament first team, scored 25 against Duke.
“I would be hard pressed to find a better pair (of guards),” McCallie said. “I think McBride’s season was very player of the year material. She was fantastic all season long and to me was very, very consistent in leading her team.
“I think that’s the thing that separates them (McBride and Lloyd). They’re athletic. They’re smart, they’re high IQ. They perform every night.”
Lloyd’s performance during the 21-4 run that turned the title game in Notre Dame’s favor separated her from McBride to earn her the ACC Tournament MVP. She scored 13 points during that stretch, displaying her versatility and athleticism.
She drilled a pair of 3-pointers. She sank a pull-up jumper in the lane in transition.
She thrilled the crowd by grabbing the ball out of the air on a half-court pass from Lindsay Allen and banking in two points on a fast break.
When Lloyd scored in the lane, while being fouled by Jackson, and then adding a free throw, the Irish had a 49-36 lead with 12:05 to play.
From there, she and McBride scored enough to keep Duke from climbing any closer than eight points.
“I thought Jewell and Kayla were unstoppable,” McGraw said. “The second half, Jewell had a stretch were she took over and did so many things. And Kayla is so dependable all year long, so steady, so consistent. We got some stops, got the break going and I thought our transition game really took off in the second half.”
Peters and Elizabeth Williams did the bulk of the work for Duke that allowed the Blue Devils to stay as close as they did for as long as they could. Peters scored 18 points while Williams added 17 points and 16 rebounds.
Williams made the all-tournament first team, while Peters was named to the second team.
“I was really, really proud of our players and their fight,” McCallie said. “I thought Elizabeth was just absolutely outstanding, absolutely outstanding and aggressive in the way that she can be. And it was a really dominant performance by Elizabeth.
“I thought Haley was just a fierce competitor as she always is.”
But Duke’s other first-team all-tournament player, senior Tricia Liston, had a tough night and that hurt the Blue Devils. Duke’s leading scorer with a 17.8 average, Liston scored just four points while hitting 2 of 11 shots. She turned the ball over four times with three coming on offensive foul calls.
“They really went after (her) and they did a great job,” McCallie said. “My heart goes out to her. Three charges. I’ve never seen that before by Tricia. I don’t think she’s had three charges in a career prior to this game. I think she was frustrated. They played great defense.”
McGraw said the focus on Liston paid off.
“I thought Jewell did a tremendous job on Liston,” McGraw said. “I was really pleased with her stats.”
Like Notre Dame, Duke is heading to the NCAA Tournament. Cameron Indoor Stadium will be a host site for first- and second-round games March 22 and 24.
The Blue Devils will learn on March 17 which three teams will come to Durham to join them for those games.