Diggins, Novosel score 20, Notre Dame beats Utah
SALT LAKE CITY (AP)
Notre Dame's Brittany Mallory had no points and one assist in Saturday's 67-54 first-round NCAA tournament win over Utah.
What won't show in the stats was her defensive effort in cooling off the hot-shooting Iwalani Rodrigues.
''At some point in the second half, we put Brittany on No. 3 and she really shut her down,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Utah's sophomore guard. ''Brittany was the key.''
Offensively, Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel scored 20 points apiece to lead the second-seeded Irish past 15th-seeded Utah.
The Irish (27-7) face Temple (24-8) in a second-round game Monday.
''We wanted to go to Sky in the second half and get something going to the rim,'' McGraw said. ''We hoped we could get somebody rolling on the pick-and-roll but she hit a 3, got to the foul line and she did a lot of really good things during that stretch. We really needed it at that point to get some confidence and relax a little bit.''
Utah led late in the first half and was within five points with 8 minutes remaining, but the Irish went on a 10-2 run to put the game out of reach.
''In that huddle, we knew we needed to have a defensive lockdown,'' said Notre Dame forward Becca Bruszewski. ''We needed to rotate over and box out, do all the little things we weren't paying attention to. We calmed down and reset.''
Rodrigues would lead Utah with 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting but didn't score another field goal after her string of eight straight points pulled Utah within 43-41.
Notre Dame went on a 6-0 run after that, fueled by back-to-back scores by Diggins and Novosel.
Then Notre Dame's 6-2 forward Devereaux Peters came up big down the stretch and finished with four blocks.
''Devereaux saves a lot of us,'' Diggins said. ''One time my man got around me and she blocked it behind me. I just looked up and said, 'Thanks a lot.'''
Janita Badon had three steals for Utah but struggled offensively, hitting only 4 of 21 shots.
''They are all long and all taller than me. I'd get in the lane and 'where are my teammates?' They are long and athletic and play great defense. They were at all the spots they needed to be,'' Badon said.
Utah (18-17) had the most losses of any team in the NCAA field, but entered Saturday's game on a roll, having won four games in five days to claim the Mountain West Conference tourney title.
The young Utes had hoped to pull off another shocker.
But they couldn't get their shots to fall Saturday.
Utah shot just 32.7 percent and committed 18 turnovers.
''We played a top team in the country to a dead heat except for one stretch and I'm just really proud with how hard they competed,'' said Utah interim coach Anthony Levrets. ''My players have huge hearts and you knew they weren't going to quit playing.''
Levrets acknowledged going into the game that Notre Dame had better players head-to-head. But he hoped a solid team effort would make the difference.
The Irish refused to play that game.
''They switched their defense in the second half and forced us to make plays one-on-one and right now, that's not our strength,'' he said. ''They made one-on-one baskets on us and we're not quite there to finish some of those plays. We played well enough to win against a lot of teams today but not against that team.''
Four Notre Dame players scored in double figures, with Bruszewski adding 13 and Peters 12.
Utah's Michelle Harrison had 16 rebounds, nine on the offensive end, while Michelle Plouffe had eight boards. But Plouffe, the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, could not get her shot to go down.
Her buzzer-beater in the MWC tourney semifinals beat BYU, and she scored eight points in overtime to lead Utah past TCU in the title game. But with Mallory guarding Plouffe early, she shot just 2 of 10 on Saturday, and 1 of 4 from 3-point range. Two early fouls limited Plouffe to 10 minutes in the first half.
After Badon's three-point play pulled Utah within 53-48 with 8:02 remaining, Plouffe had a chance to cut it even more, but she missed a layup. Novosel and Bruszewski sank two free throws apiece at the other end to bump Notre Dame's lead back to 57-48.
Notre Dame entered the tourney having lost to No. 1-ranked UConn in the Big East finals. But the Irish hadn't dropped two in a row since falling to UCLA and Kentucky early.
They made sure Utah wouldn't end that streak.
''We stepped up our defensive intensity and we knew that would be what would win the game for us,'' Novosel said. ''We came out a little anxious, a little too excited, but we finished strong.''