Irish ride hot start into Elite Eight


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The comforts of home for Notre Dame include a crowd that is relentless from the time the Irish take the floor to the quiet moments preceding the postgame singing of the alma mater, a fury that has followed the team through each of its 15 victories here in the regular season.

The familiar floor decals were replaced Saturday by the generic NCAA models for tournament games, but the energy inside the Purcell Pavilion was in turn charged up another level.

"I thought the roof might come off, the crowd was so loud at times," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "And they really, really got us off to a great start. So thanks to the crowd for getting that game going."

Top-seeded Notre Dame once again won an NCAA tournament game by 17 points, topping No. 5 seed Oklahoma State 89-72. But the fashion in which the Irish ended the Cowgirls' season could not have been any more different from their Monday triumph in Toledo, Ohio, where they finished off ninth-seeded Arizona State late in an 84-67 victory.

That's not to say the Irish's Sweet 16 performance was perfect. And it's not to say the support of a fan base that lets no call go unpunished will carry them past No. 2 seed Baylor Monday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), when they will be playing for a fourth straight Final Four trip.

But Notre Dame's latest win was a product of a ridiculously hot start that put it in the driver's seat for all 40 minutes, an opening that McGraw could sense was five days and, frankly, 35 games in the making.

All those ACC battles in the foreign environs of a new conference, all that weight of wearing the bull's-eye, and the Irish just couldn't wait to get back here.

"I think there was a little thought of, 'We've got to get back home,' and maybe we came out a little tight," McGraw said of her team's second-round win earlier in the week. "I thought Natalie [Achonwa] came out well but then she got two quick fouls, she was out for the rest of the half. I think we lost our rhythm, I think with the substitutions.

"I think this game we had the right people on the floor in the beginning of the game. I think the comfort level of playing at home was big."

Achonwa helped set the tone early Saturday, lifting the Irish to a 14-0 lead just 3½ minutes into the contest, one they never relinquished. She poured in a day's work over the game's first 20 minutes, tallying 14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks.

But her final totals of 23 points, 7 boards, 6 assists and 5 blocks -- while shooting 10-for-13, no less -- hardly told the story.

"Where she's most dangerous is [as] a passer," Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said. "I don't know if there's any post players in the country that pass the ball as well as that young lady does. You turn your head and she's going to send one right by your ear and hit somebody for an open layup or a 2-pointer. When you have the ability to score on the box, but you also have the ability to beat people with the pass, it makes you a special player.

"She has more dimensions to her game than a lot of post players in the country. She can beat you in various ways."

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