ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Notre Dame had plenty of excuses for a slow start.
The Fighting Irish hadn’t played in nine days. They spent time at a theme park during their trip to Florida and with family over the holiday break.
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Took a little time, but they shook off the rust.
Brittany Mallory had 16 points, Ashley Barlow scored 15 and No. 3 Notre Dame overcame a slow start to beat Central Florida 85-52 on Tuesday.
Barlow’s layup as time expired in the first half highlighted a 13-0 run by the Fighting Irish that turned a tight game into a blowout, smothering the Knights with a full-court press that forced 36 turnovers. Notre Dame (11-0) extended the second-best start in the program’s 33-year history.
“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Barlow said. “I think it was our defense that changed things. We stepped it up, we got some steals and we got easy layups.”
Marshay White had 12 points, and D’Nay Daniels added 10 points for the Knights (3-6), who were going for one of the biggest wins in school history. Instead, they lost for the third time this season to a ranked opponent.
The sparse black and gold crowd were treated to a fast start by the Knights, with the home team trading baskets for most of the first half. White’s 3-pointer cut Notre Dame’s lead to 31-29. But the celebration was short-lived.
The relentless full-court pressure by the Fighting Irish overwhelmed the Knights. Notre Dame’s backcourt caused errant passes, quick shots and turnovers.
“It was almost fool’s gold in the beginning,” UCF coach Joi Williams said, “because they didn’t capitalize on our turnovers.”
Skylar Diggins had five points as the Fighting Irish scored 13 straight before intermission, including Barlow’s layup that came at the buzzer.
“I thought it was a huge momentum boost for us going into halftime,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
Her team scored the next two baskets of the second half, going ahead 48-29 as some of the fans who traveled with Notre Dame for the holiday break cheered “Let’s Go Irish.”
“I knew we were capable of playing with them,” said Knights forward Emma Cannon, who surpassed 1,000 points for her career. “But we just made too many mistakes.”
Notre Dame also got a boost with the return of forward Devereaux Peters, who hadn’t played since tearing a ligament in her left knee on Nov. 23, 2008. She scored two points in 10 minutes.
Only the 2000-01 Notre Dame team got off to a better start, beginning the season with 23 wins en route to a 34-2 record and the program’s first national championship.
The Fighting Irish remained at No. 3 in the AP Poll this week even after second-ranked Stanford lost to top-ranked Connecticut last week. Stanford fell from being a unanimous No. 2, but still remained 19 points ahead of Notre Dame.
“Frankly, I don’t really care where we’re ranked,” McGraw said. “We are a team that’s in control of our own destiny. We’re the masters of our fate.”